Heelpolitik: The Power of the Stiletto

  1. Heelpolitik: The Power of the Stiletto
    Why Female Executives Keep
    A Pair for Clashes and Crises;
    Ferragamos to Be Fired In
    August 2, 2007; Page D8
    Look under many a powerful woman's desk and you'll find a serious pair of heels. Whether they're on her feet or tucked in a drawer, the shoes' key attribute is a three-inch spike that, if redirected, could put your eye out.

    A pair of black Richard Tyler pumps -- pointy-toed, matte leather, very skinny heels -- live under the desk of Dana Thayer, senior vice president of marketing for Chelsea Piers, a sports and entertainment complex in Manhattan. She pulls them out for important meetings. "They turn me into this different person," Ms. Thayer says.

    Amy Swift, who runs a women's business incubator called Women Who Launch, opts for a pair of beige snakeskin Jimmy Choos that "have an all-business quality to them." She calls them "quiet but fierce."

    Flats are this year's much-hyped shoe trend, with sales of comfy shoes shooting skyward, according to retailers such as Nordstrom and Zappos.com. But those friendly flats tend to disappear at key moments -- the biggest meetings, confrontations and transactions. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, 77% of women wear heels to special occasions, which probably explains why Zappos still sells more designer heels than flats, at a substantial ratio of 65-35.

    "High heels indicate power," says Stuart Weitzman, designer of many a power heel. "For some reason, it's a natural instinct for human beings."

    This is partly a factor of height. At 5'9½ in bare feet, a pair of heels leaves Kristin Bentz, who runs a fashion-investment blog, towering over many men in a room. "I totally use the shoes for the intimidation factor -- for women and for men," she says.

    Yet, as much as I'd like to argue that this is all about the added height, I'm afraid it's not. High heels are sexy. They offer an inherent contradiction: They make us more fragile, but conquering them to stride alongside men in their sensible flats creates mystique.

    In an elevator at Lehman Brothers, Ms. Bentz's former employer, a couple years ago, a senior executive stared at Ms. Bentz's chocolate-brown crocodile four-inch pointy-toe pumps and asked, "Where do the toes go?" she recalls with relish.

    The empowerment of women in the office has actually opened the door for sexier looks, even in conservative offices like the insurance brokerage where Darla Brunner works in Los Angeles. High heels were once less acceptable because of their alluring connotations, says Ms. Brunner. They were a distraction. But "in this day and age when it is more accepted that females are capable in the business world, those same high heels now command more business respect," she says.

    Even if sex is still power, it must be carefully constrained in the office. Step across the line to blatantly sexy, and you risk moving into the dumb zone, or worse. Hence, Christian Louboutin's red-soled heels, with their hint of bondage, are best left out of the monthly budget meeting.

    There are certain places, like hospitals and construction sites, where heels simply can't be worn for reasons of comfort and safety -- and others where constraint is so important that heels rarely rise above two inches. Among these are the halls of government. In Washington D.C., our best-dressed secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, often chooses skinny-heeled but lower two-inch pumps. U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton's flats and chunky heels keep our minds on her intellect.

    Still, feeling put-together as well as three inches taller can do wonders for the confidence -- if you can still walk. Dorothy Crenshaw donned multicolored suede Ferragamo pumps with three-inch heels to tackle an ornery automotive-company CEO who was firing her communications firm a few years back. Usually she's concerned about comfort. But that day, "I said, 'I'll be damned if I'm going to meet this man in flats or chunky heels," says Ms. Crenshaw, president of Stanton Crenshaw Communications in New York.

    Mr. Weitzman, who concedes he has never worn the heels he designs, "except for a joke," says high-mindedly that no woman should have to suffer in a pair of heels. To help, he adds a 1½-millimeter-to-three-millimeter layer of latex to the inner sole of his shoes.

    Still, it's still reasonably safe to say that those Stuart Weitzmans, Manolo Blahniks, Jimmy Choos, and even Cole Haan Nike Air heels have all contributed their share to the fact that 72% of women have had to stop wearing a shoe because of foot trouble, according to a study of high heels by the American Podiatric Medical Association.

    "I'm in the deep trouble that I am with my feet because I wore Charles Jourdan heels all day because I thought I had to be chic," says Susan Dresner, a New York wardrobe consultant who has spent much of the past several months recovering from foot surgery. Nevertheless, she's still putting her clients -- most of whom are professional women -- in 2½-inch heels. She prefers an opera heel -- a Victorian-looking heel that's wider at the top and bottom but conveys a thin look with a cinched waist in the middle.

    Just going from two-inch to three-inch heels puts seven times the pressure on the ball of the foot, says podiatrist Christian Robertozzi, who practices in Newton, N.J. Dr. Robertozzi appears to be immune to the magic of a power heel. "It throws out your back. Your butt's going one way and your stomach's going the other way," he says -- though what he describes is exactly what many men find appealing about the shoes.

    Birkenstocks are Dr. Robertozzi's sort of shoe. "They're beautiful," he says. "We could all wear those."

    But not when addressing the board of directors. For that sort of thing, says Caroline Nolan, a crisis communications lawyer who recently moved to Jerusalem from New York, "There is simply nothing that makes you feel better than walking out the door in a pair of very high heels."
  2. Thanks for posting. Very interesting article.

    What I find strange is that the article talks about women in management positions donning heels for important meetings because it makes them feel feminine and powerful at the same time, when being female is precisely what keeps women at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. Walk into any board meeting in a large corporation and you'll find the male to female ratio hovering under 4:1.

    Are our collective perceptions of power as it correlates to sex really that skewed?
  3. Interesting read! Thank you for posting!

    I'd like to hear what our ladies here think about the following statements....

    Just b/c Louboutin's come with red soles, they are considered inappropriate or "too flashy" for professional office? Now, of course we're not talking about 5" Pigalle's, fishnet pumps, or some of the other edgier/sexier styles, but what about 4" classic black Pigalle's, or black Decollete 868's, or Simple pumps? I've seen many professional women in Manhattan nowadays wearing those to work.....is that really "too flashy"? I beg to differ, at least for NYC.

    Now the part about top female politicians like Condoleeza Rice and Hilary Clinton having to wear flats, chunky heels, lower heels, etc. just to "keep our minds on [their] intellect" -- it is a sad reality. I experienced it in engineering/physical science and as shallow as it may sound, it's one of the reasons I got out of that field. Not the only reason, but I hated having to dress a certain way just to be taken seriously. Of course I know that applies to a certain extent in all fields, just that in particular fields men tend to correlate dress/attire with intellect more than others.
  4. But ditching the heels doesn't take away the fact that we are still female. The myth that women have to dress in dowdy suits, flat shoes and emulate men to get ahead was dispelled long ago. That doesn't get a woman any further ahead because no matter how you slice or dice it, we are still female.

    Dressing in a professional, but polished manner is the best approach, and that usually includes heels. I don't think most women put on heels with professional attire with sex appeal in mind, but rather a pulled-together, professional but still female look. Even when trying to get ahead in the business world, there is no sense trying to deny we are women.
  5. I basically only wear heels when I'm going to be doing something important. They make me walk straighter and make my calf muscles more angular. I have a black pair with a covered patent leather heel that has a nice shine that kind of flashes when I walk, makes me feel like an "appropriate dominatrix"
  6. I don't believe Louboutins should be left out of the "office". Yes, there is sexism in the workplace, but I think some women could actually pull off a sexy pair of CLs while maintaining respect from her peers, but it also takes a certain kind of woman to do that. One who's strong, confident and assertive.

    I think it also depends on the type of people your working with and their openness. If you're working with narrow-minded people, then you might want to ditch the heels. It's all circumstantial.

    Thanks for the article, maxter :flowers:
  7. ITA.
  8. I totally agree - look at Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
    I love seeing women in heels - to hell with a man who is thinking with the "wrong" head... (hope that doesnt sound too vulgar)!
  9. ITA with this article, although I would submit there is a fine line easily crossed.
  10. You must have misread my statement. I never made any of the claims you seem to have thought I made. I was simply pointing out two realities:

    1) Women feel "powerful" in high heel shoes (myself, and most ppl on the sub-forum by self-selection, included)


    2) Women are underrepresented in the higher echelons of corporate power, suggesting a gender bias.

    All I stated was that the two seem to be at odds with each other. I never suggested we should stop being women, stop embracing the feminine sides of our nature, nor try to emulate men in manners of dress.
  11. Great article! Thanks for sharing.
  12. I enjoyed this article. Thanks for sharing.