Victoria's Secret is best known for what it has to offer women. However, a few days ago as I was strolling around the flagship store on Bond Street, I discovered that the store also has a lot to offer men as well. Just not exactly what you'd think.
My experience began like many other shopping excursions, casually browsing for a few practical items. The store was bustling with women who were relaxed but focused on their own purchases. The women in the store all displayed a quiet confidence in knowing what to do and how to do it. My browsing journey took me into another room where I noticed a man behaving quite awkwardly while being guided around by one of the many well-trained twenty-something shop assistants. My first thought was: "Good for him coming in here alone! I imagine it isn't the most comfortable experience for a man." It was clear he felt out of place. His discomfort was obvious by the way he was shuffling around and avoiding eye contact with any women nearby.
This otherwise unremarkable experience sent a spark through my mind. This man was professional and smartly dressed; perhaps he could have worked for one of the many private equity, hedge fund or banking firms in the nearby area. I imagined that he was confident in his own world of work, but in this female haven he was not. He was the only man in the room, and it showed.
This world - that of Victoria's Secret - was not created to make someone like him feel comfortable. In this environment—a store catering to women, filled by women and selling feminine merchandise—the familiar patriarchal dynamics of the world had completely shifted.
This was a world that can transform an otherwise confident professional into an introverted, self-conscious and indecisive man who needed the help of a twenty-something female to make one simple purchase.
I have seen this story play out with the gender roles reversed many times throughout my career in the corporate world. Today, the culture of many companies are built and sustained by men, for men. Traditional male characteristics are still encouraged, rewarded and expected from female professionals, especially if they expect to reach the executive suite. Being the only woman in the room is still an everyday reality for so many women in business; most men do not understand how corrosive this situation can be to a person's confidence.
I have often heard men say that they believe gender inequality is not an issue in their firm. They hire women and now even have some women on their teams. Well, on those terms this man should not have experienced any issue either. There is no sign at the door of Victoria's Secret barring men from entry. Men are allowed to freely enter and buy whatever they choose. No woman in there would tell them to leave or suggest that to get to the front of the queue they must behave in a certain way. So, what was the problem? Why did this man appear so uncomfortable? Why did he suddenly lack the confidence he seemed to have in the outside world?
It's all in the numbers. If that store catered towards the needs of men, or if there were simply more men in the store (either equivalent to or greater than the number of women), then it is likely that man would have felt a greater sense of belonging.
Just because women are allowed into the workplace now, does not mean their experiences are equivalent to those of their male peers. Women, as the minority, simply do not have the same sense of freedom to be their true authentic selves in many corporate environments, even today.
Just like that Victoria's Secret shop assistant guiding the lone man through an ostensibly unwelcoming environment, so, too, do women benefit from the guidance of sponsors, helping them navigate the male dominated corporate world.
Before a man talks about gender parity, perhaps he first needs to take a trip to a lingerie store and experience what it is like to be the only one in the room. Maybe if more men had experiences like this, they may begin to understand what it is to feel so out of place. Maybe they would join us in creating greater gender equality in the workplace.
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Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."