Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gender credibility

One of the recurrent themes for me over the last couple months has been how gender effects credibility. It started when I received feedback from a conference workshop that said I should try to look "more like a CEO." Really? What kind of feedback is that? Even worse, the same commenter added that I "obviously have a wealth of knowledge about and passion for" the subject matter. So then why were the comments aimed at my appearance? (For the record, I was wearing a totally respectable dress, although I had broken a heel before the workshop.) And what does a CEO look like, anyway? Do they all run around in suits? or is it that I don't look like a CEO in really any respect, so there's already a disconnect no matter what I'm wearing?

Let me also say that if I had received a comment complimenting my appearance, I would react the same way. Why is it ok, in a business context, to comment on my appearance? Would you ever write a comment to a male presenter that it was obvious that he was knowledgeable, but you hated his tie? or his pants were wrinkled? and that counted against his credibility?

My snarkiness pushes me to think that there's no way for me to look more like a CEO without somehow growing a penis, but that's only part of the issue. There are lots of professional and respected women, so then I start the self-reflection process. What is it about me that is soliciting this type of reaction? I like to dress up, particularly in dresses and heels. I speak my mind, I own my geekiness, and I love talking to other smart people who challenge me. I'm a bit of a gadget geek, I'm a bit of a gamer. I'm decisive and I'm a risk-taker. And yes, I'm a girl. In some cases, it seems that one genetic determination lessens my credibility for some people. Maybe its harder to accept knowledge or advice from me than it is a 45 year old guy. Maybe its really just my perception, my filter, my sensitivity to gender issues that makes this such an issue for me.

But I don't think its appropriate to comment on my attire. I don't think my credibility is tied to my weight, or whether or not I'm wearing lipstick. It's not ok in business situations to call me "honey" or "doll" or say that something I've done is "cute." I'm not easily offended, rarely ever, really. But it makes me crazy to think that what I look like, or simply the fact I was born female, makes me somehow less smart, less credible, less experienced, or in any other way "less." It also makes me crazy that otherwise sensitive, kind, and educated people sometimes inadvertently perpetuate the attitude that women are less credible or qualified by seemingly benign statements about appearance.

I'm not suggesting that we should all ignore the fact that there are differences between women and men. I'm suggesting we embrace those differences. We think differently, we communicate differently, and in many instances we work differently. And that's great. Its as it should be.

But if you say something to me that you wouldn't say to a male peer, I'd challenge you to tell me why. Chances are, you shouldn't say it to me, either.


  1. I like to think I'm, past all the gender bullshit and that my refusal to participate (I blast through ignore or work around)is a positive move. However, I noted my own pause when confronted with designing my avatar for a test sim last week. I wondered if I would be perceived differently - more credible essentially - by the Industrial design masters students who have been working on it if I appeared as a guy...thought about how my av should be - shapely but not too shapely, etc. pondered the psyche behind me ending up making her female but basically totally totally neutral.

    Business has changed since I started out 20 years ago, but I couldn't say I've experienced equity. I know I have to build my own credibility, but there are the extra laps in many cases for the female runner.

  2. Wow! Nice post! I think you've said what most of us women who are in the corporate world or run our own businesses have come to know privately, among ourselves, as a "truth" about "the way things are". No matter that it's a double standard and that it's wrong.

    Before I got into my professional career, I used to work in a full-service store selling men's and women's clothing. I can tell you that there are many people, wealthy and powerful among them, walking around who need some professional clothing advice. So the fact that someone, anyone, would comment on your wardrobe choices, presumably, rather than stick to the content you presented, is pretty shameful and hypocritical.

    Maybe that's what makes virtual worlds so appealing. You can choose what you want your avatar to represent. So, especially in VWs like Second Life, you don't even have to look like a human. The gender-based references are almost meaningless there, or in online communications in general. If you had to build an avatar that "looked like a CEO", what would that look like??? Maybe when we all figure out that there is no answer to that question, then we will have made a step in the right direction.

  3. Unfortunately, lots of people never managed to come to grips with "don't judge a book by it's cover".

    That said, no matter how good we are about that, we do still make judgments about people based on how they look. We can't help it. If you bring a 25-year-old blonde, dressed for a night club into a room, and stand her next to her equally blonde peer who is dressed like a banking employee, we will draw conclusions about each, based on our own biases and the situation - are we in a night club, in an office or McDonald's?

    Should we? No. But we do.

    If I turn up at a presentation wearing shorts and sandals, I will surely offend many people. But only if they see 'business dress' as appropriate for the event. I;ve been at plenty of developer events where shorts, sandals, torn t-shorts and blue hair are completely appropriate.

    I don't think you can fight people's biases. You should continue to dress and act in whatever way you feel is comfortable and appropriate. It's not as if you want to work for a stuffy old fart who thinks how you look is more important than what you know, and how you share and apply it. Do you? ;-)

  4. Interesting post. I too have had my share of gender bias- how about a mechanic yelling "Skirt on the tarmac"! But let me play devil's advocate - would you feel that a male dressed in an old T-shirt and ripped jeans did not look "executiveish". However, you did say you were appropriately dressed- so perhaps it was different than the cultural perception this person had for executive. Although appearance has nothing to do with knowledge, it does have something to do with presentation. As SH commented, a woman dressed as a "dancer" would look out of place at a conference, a conservatively dressed female CEO would look as out of place in a club. For my situation- the mechanic just wanted to "warn" others that they should not be using bad language because a "Lady" was present. It was his "culture" to speak that way; not offense meant & none taken.

  5. Really, truly...I was wearing a really nice dress! Totally business presentation appropriate! Although it was red...maybe that was the problem? :)

    Steve, your comments are exactly the counter-points I play out in my mind. And you're right, my own comfort and judgment of appropriate are what I should focus on. doesn't mean that others should be "off the hook" for addressing their biases, even if everyone does have them. Biases are expected, but it doesn't mean they shouldn't be challenged :)

  6. "Biases are expected, but it doesn't mean they shouldn't be challenged"

    Absolutely. That's what teenagers are for ;-)

    Really, I think we are generally in agreement that the fuddy-duddy was wrong. If your dress really was that inappropriate, most likely others would have mentioned it too.

    I don't think it's wrong of you to pause for thought and consider, maybe, just maybe you *did* make a mistake in your choice of dress. But it sounds like you did this already and feel confident that you did nothing wrong.

    So what's to challenge? If you plan to wear mini-skirts with hip-high splits to shake up that old establishment, that would certainly work, but that's not who you are or the image you want to portray.

    I guess what I'm saying is that you were pulled up by the comment, and you rightly have sought feedback from others about it. We seem to agree that you did nothing wrong (though none of us have seen what you wore on that fateful day [grin]) so maybe you don’t need to worry about it after all. I really don’t think there's much to challenge here. The fact that a red dress *can* be considered appropriate business attire proves that older thinking already has been appropriately challenged, IMHO.

  7. Unless you have a tendency to break heels before most speaking engagements, I was present at that conference and your talk. I thought you were dressed very professionally. As for CEO "type" honestly I don't like the way they dress most of the time because they are too "stuffy" and I wonder how "real life" are they. I think the comment is worth thinking about for a brief moment, but then move on. Many times, comments from the audience comes from their own insecurities and has nothing to do with the person it was directed at. The person very well could have been envious that you are so successful. You changed career paths, you have your own business, etc.
    Although, my comments may not be valid if you ask others, I don't dress professionally according to them either. I work in a hospital as an Informatics Education Specialist. I wear scrubs pants, and polo tops most days, even with meetings. I think it puts me more in line with my customers, clinical staff, not the higher ups. I have been able to build a reputation here despite my attire, and the original warnings I was given about moving out of scrubs into "professional" attire.
    Koreen...keep up the great work..and at the end of the day can you still put your head on your pilow and sleep? If the answer is yes, you are doing the right things.