Heather Monahan, 43
Founder of Boss In Heels (and in recovery from corporate America)
Heather Monahan is a boss in every sense of the word. After spending the bulk of her career climbing the corporate ladder, the rockstar executive and single mother decided to abandon the proverbial hamster wheel and instead dedicate her life to helping women squash self doubt. Her initiative, rightfully dubbed #bossinheels, aims to destroy the male-oriented vision of what being a “boss” means. “Become your number one cheerleader instead of your biggest saboteur,” advises the blonde beauty. “It will change your life.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
My entire life has led me to where I am today. Having struggled with my own insecurities early on and not having a strong female mentor led me to the decision to empower others and give them the insight I was always searching for. While working in corporate America and doing what I thought I was supposed to do, I stumbled upon what I was meant to do. It didn’t happen overnight it was more of an evolution over time. As I grew more confident in myself it became overwhelmingly clear what I needed to do; I needed to be the person that I needed when I was younger, I needed to shine my light so others could see. My greatest achievement is risking my comfort zone to be the person I am becoming and showing my son through my actions not just my words that everyone should live up to their potential and chase their dreams.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
You can't dress feminine and be taken seriously.
3. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
My own self-doubt. To overcome self-doubt you must take action and develop your confidence muscle. Who you surround yourself with is everything – fire negative people in your life and watch you take off. How you see yourself is how others will see you – speak kindly to yourself, make yourself a priority, love yourself the same way you would a baby – this takes practice but it can become a habit.
Journal to see how far you have come and keep track of all of your small wins. Turn scarcity into abundance by writing down three things a day that you can be grateful for. Moving into your fear and realizing that you are okay will give you strength for your next challenge while backing away does the opposite. Speak up in meetings, speak up for yourself and speak your truth. Becoming your number one cheerleader instead of your biggest saboteur will change your life. Go for it!
4. What did you learn through your personal journey?
Early in my career I was taken aside by a very stoic and cold woman who told me that I dressed inappropriately for work and needed to wear pantsuits and more formal conservative attire. I have never been a very conservative pantsuit type of girl so this conversation didn’t go well.
Time and time again in my career I have been told to look a certain way or dress a certain way and with much difficulty, I did not listen. I was sexually harassed at my first job and was told that the way that I dressed invited these types of challenges.
Years later I remember being at a company meeting and sitting in on a roast where I was tagged the “VP of Cleavage” apparently this was a knock at the strapless dress I was wearing. I excused myself and cried in the bathroom for a few minutes before composing myself and returning to the meeting. The ironic thing is in the past year as I have launched my personal brand to empower others, I have heard so much positive feedback and appreciation for my sense of style. Believing in yourself and being yourself will always pay dividends in the end but isn’t always easy along the way. Be true to you.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
The only limitations that can be put on you are the ones that you put on yourself. Make a conscious choice to challenge the status quo. I learned that Oprah was fired from TV many years ago, only to become the media maven that she is today. Everyone will be told ‘no’ and why they are wrong or not good enough, and those are the moments you pivot and find a way to make it work in spite of the negativity. If success was easy everyone would have it. Let nothing stop you in chasing your dreams and nothing will.
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."