Lay Off The Heels, WIB

CEOs look better when sex is left out of it

Big things are happening over at the offices of Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business (WIB). Two weekends ago, the ladies threw a successful undergraduate business conference in Boston, and last weekend, some of the gang jetted off to Omaha, Neb., to meet Warren Buffett, every aspiring businessman’s (or businesswoman’s) idol.

WIB is the largest business organization at Harvard College, and it comprises a bunch of very ambitious girls. The group, according to its mission, “seeks to empower a dynamic group of enterprising young women by uniting them through business education and experience.” WIB members picked up the ways of the power suit earlier than the rest of us, it seems, and perhaps they’re ahead on the career front, too.

Unfortunately, in the course of their “WIBternships” (that’s the snappy name for the process by which a member gains entry into the club) the WIB darlings may have missed some critical lessons on women’s liberation. At least, if their latest fashion statement is any indication.

This fall, WIB members have been dashing around in neon pink t-shirts to promote their Intercollegiate Business Conference, which took place Oct.13th. But forget the shirt’s hue (color-gender association is so over). It’s the words on the t-shirt that are most memorable: “CEO’s look better in heels.” The phrase is accompanied by a graphic of slender legs (presumably female) in a pair of pumps.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with a group using clothing to promote their student organization’s event, there are several things wrong with WIB’s choice of motto. The slogan undermines a fundamental principle of the model workplace: Your looks ought not to matter when it comes to your career prospects. Acknowledging the fact that showing up to your job at an investment bank in sweatpants and Birkenstocks would be a poor move, what matters most in a job is how well you do it, not how well you dress for it.

The WIB t-shirt slogan is offensive, because it undermines the important ideal of gender equality in the business world, as do many facets of WIB itself—the very idea that a support group for aspiring businesswomen is necessary suggests that a person’s gender might play a part in how well she performs on the job. Likewise, in the case of this t-shirt, by suggesting that women make better CEOs, WIB is opening up the door for judgment on the basis of gender. This is exactly the sort of mistake forward-thinking social activists have been working to correct for the past several decades. Moreover, the notion that gender should be a contributing factor to career success paves the way for some really terrible workplace happenings. Sexual harassment suits, for instance, are usually a result of gender tensions or inequities.

There are some more nuances that WIB seems to have missed in its t-shirt design. The motto seems to implicitly suggest that women “make better” CEOs than men do, which ties into the larger problem of linking professional fitness to gender. Perhaps WIB members did not intend this nuance, but then, they should have thought a bit more deeply about their slogan when they sent this t-shirt design to print.

The last and worst problem with the WIB t-shirt motto is that it implicitly associates female professionals with high heels, and this constitutes quite a sexualized image. This association devalues the other aspects of female professionalism, such as brainpower, organizational abilities, and corporate prowess. Successful women don’t all wear kitten heels, after all—Harvard’s own Drew Faust appears to be quite a fan of flats.

Few would argue that the members of WIB are not well intentioned in their efforts. The phrase in question, perverse as it is, was likely meant to encourage Harvard women to aim for great career heights. To be sure, undergraduate women at Harvard are capable of becoming CEOs (and a number of them do). The image of high heels, however, is hardly an appropriate symbol of that professional aspiration.

Despite the fact that I contacted several WIB members for comment on the t-shirt slogan, none were willing to speak to me on the record. We can only speculate, then, as to what would motivate this group to pick such an atrocious motto.

It’s true that heels are associated with sexiness, and a woman’s desire to be beautiful in the workplace is fine and even understandable, but it ought not be a factor that contributes to her career success. When it comes down to it, CEOs look best when they’re qualified and competent. They look best in corner offices, or at the heads of conference room tables, or on their Blackberries. Footwear (or gender) has very little to do with it.

Lucy M. Caldwell ’09 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.