Years ago, my friend Pilar, a 6-foot-tall real estate agent specializing in luxury properties in Madrid, recommended me to start wearing high heels to work. “I feel powerful in high heels,” she said.
By then, I’d built my own boutique communications consulting firm and had loyal clients that were big names in the media and banking industries. And I’d done that in flats and “basic” clothes. I considered my brain my most powerful tool, so I never deemed it necessary to declare my “value” with external signs. Plus, I’m already quite tall by Spanish standards.
When in 2010 the media group that owned CNN in Spain asked me to train all of its reporters and presenters, though, I decided to pay that kind of “superficial” attention to my professional persona. I got fine clothes, jewelry, and high heels. I also started to wear makeup and blow out my hair.
Apparently, it worked. A few minutes into the first session at CNN, one of the participants said, “One can see you’re very professional.” After being in the business for more than 10 years, I was experiencing first hand what Sylvia-Ann Hewlett explains in Executive Presence. We all telegraph our professionalism with external signs, and our appearance is one of them.
But to what extent did the high heels contribute to the overall impression of being “very professional?”
What do high heels really say about us? Are we signaling power with our high heels?
No. On the contrary, high heels place us in a disadvantaged position.
Disadvantage #1–Walking, climbing subway stairs, standing for hours
As a New York-based consultant, the subway and walking are my preferred modes of transportation. During the training sessions, I’m active at all times: I walk around the room and stand for long periods.
Doing so in high heels is costly in terms of time, energy, comfort, and health.
Disadvantage #2–Extra luggage
Since schlepping across town in high heels is out of the question, I carry my work shoes in a bag and change them before entering the building–I guess you do too. That means an extra tool added to my already heavy equipment–laptop, video camera, tripod, etc.
Disadvantage #3–Escaping a potential danger
Picture one of those days when the sidewalks are covered in ice or slush. Imagine you have to evacuate the building in face of an emergency. If you’re wearing high heels, you’re in serious trouble. Do you take off your shoes and risk hurting your feet? Or do you run in your high heels and risk slipping on the ice and breaking your leg?
Disadvantage #4–Networking events
You attend these to meet people and exchange business cards hoping you’ll make meaningful professional connections. You need to be sharp, remember your goal and elevator pitch, ask the right questions, be a good listener… all in high heels.
At one point, your attention may be divided between your feet–ouch!–and the person you’re talking to. There are still four people you want to meet but the only thing you want is to find a chair.
Business attire, executive presence, and high heels
In May of 2016, a woman in London was forced out of her job as a receptionist at PwC on her first day because she refused to wear heels–the company required that all women wore 2-4in heels. The woman argued she couldn’t be escorting clients to meeting rooms for nine hours wearing heels.
She was penalized for refusing to be forced into a disadvantaged position.
But why did the company require that women wore heels? How do heels help female receptionists in a consulting firm do a better job?
Obviously, it’s not about the job: it’s about presence and the type of job this woman had–receptionist. Maybe others don’t see women’s professionalism if they’re not wearing heels and hence, the brand image of the company is diminished in the eyes of the client.
Maybe women themselves feel less authoritative and with less presence if they’re not wearing heels. Why?
What high heels really say about the women who wear them is that they’re strong, resilient, and able to cope with difficult situations. Or that they have the time and money to take cabs. In any case, they signal capability more than power.
What is your experience with high heels? Share your thoughts here.