Dear Mr. Molloy:
I am one of several women in the executive suite of a Fortune 500 hundred company. Two months ago I became assistant to one of the vice presidents which means if I do my job well I will become an officer in the company.
I come from a small town in upstate New York so I never knew anyone who was an executive in a large company. Just working at headquarters has been an education for me. I now understand that women executives have a different image and approach to problems than the women I met in the past including most of my professors. I earned an MBA from the University of Michigan and believe I’m well qualified to make management decisions. One of the professors said that years ago your book was used in some classes but it was now hopelessly dated because the women’s movement has opened the doors of the executive suites to women and things have changed so much.
Because I had no background when I started working I read your book on business dress but did not take it seriously. Since I arrived here I’ve rethought that and now realize you still have an impact on how women executives dress. While most of the women do not follow your rules exactly I’ve noticed that when they’re going to meetings many of them wear jackets and some wear suits.
I have several questions. Is the professor right or am; I right is your book still relevant? If you have one piece of advice to give me on image what would it be? Are there any mistakes that women moving into the executive suite make?
Any other hints on executive image would be appreciated.
Name and Address Withheld
Dear Future Executive:
Your short seemingly simple questions are anything but. To answer them properly would take an entire book but I will try in this blog to cover the obvious points.
You’re both right. My book has become dated because today women executives dress more femininely and fashionably than when I wrote the original book and the update. There are two reasons for this, women in most fields are no longer looked on by the men in executive suites as less competent than their male counterparts. There are only a few fields where women have to prove their worth when they walk in the door. They are the traditional male-dominated businesses, construction, high-tech, and energy to name a few and even in those fields women have made it to the top. 30 years ago when women weren’t accepted in construction Donald Trump’s top construction person was a woman. Like most businessmen he was a pragmatist and didn’t care about anything except how well she did the job.
My first piece of advice is keep doing what you’re doing. You said you are learning by studying the people around you and today when dress codes vary from company to company that is exactly what you should be doing. Keep in mind that although some of my specific advice may be dated, the principles on which it is based are not. In any management job if you’re a man or woman you will do better if while not straying too far from the unofficial company dress code you dress conservatively and traditionally. If you’re going into a situation where you think your authority is going to be challenged, the darker your outfit the more authority you will have and the less likely it is you will be challenged.
Every woman in business in a certain sense has to make the bedroom or boardroom choice. If you dress in a frilly and feminine style you will not be taken seriously by most men and if you dress in any way that sends a sexual signal men are more likely to object to your giving them orders. By the way most women do not think that most of their garments send sexual signals even when they do. A majority believe if everyone wears a short skirt to the office short skirts are acceptable. When the fashion industry pushes short skirts they say fashionable to most women but we’ve been testing for years and short skirts always say sex to men. Since I’ve been in this business women told me many times that all that has changed. They often use the date to justify their argument, they usually say it’s 1974, 1994 or the 21st century and that’s simply not true anymore. In fact with men very little changes, although they may give lip service to being politically correct the majority are not. To understand how differently men and women view sexual signals just think about the fact that while most women do not consider wearing very high heels to be a sexual signal, most men do.
The primary weakness of executive women is they often are ineffective when making a presentation before a group. They are usually ineffective not because of what they say but how they say it. Just about all women who have not been trained and a substantial percentage of men speak too rapidly when discussing an important topic. If they slowed down they would be far more effective and have a greater impact on their audience. Another reason women have problems is one third of them have high pitched voices which makes it difficult for them to capture an audience. To become effective, they should hire a speech coach from a local University to help with this problem.
Another mistake made by women is when they get their dream job and the office that goes with it they don’t immediately redecorate. If the person who held that job before them was a man he usually sat in a large leather office chair behind a large wooden desk which added to his power and authority but more often than not the same desk and chair dwarfs most women and makes them look small, weak and ineffective.
Finally, several years ago I didn’t have to tell men or women not to discuss politics at work. Today however many young women come out of universities convinced that global warming is destroying the world, that socialism is more effective than capitalism, and that a man who uses a locker room speech or makes politically incorrect assertions is a sexist. You can believe whatever you want but keep your mouth shut. If you defend left-wing theories in a conservative, traditional, capitalist workplace it will not help your career. And if you use one of those theories to attack an individual it can and probably will kill your career.
Keep in mind liberal students are attracted to the academic life while conservative students tend to go into business. A substantial number of executives today believe that their careers and their lives were diminished by left-wing professors who did not give them the grades they deserved because they didn’t parrot the left-wing professors beliefs. They like the far left divide the world into them and us. and if they think you are one of them they will kill your career.