On the feet

Heels, again.

Women have long bemoaned the unfair and sexist norms that require many of us to wear heels at the office – from the physical discomfort of having to work in stilettos for hours, to the misogynistic tropes that get projected on to women who wear high heels, especially in male-dominated spaces.

Finally, though, there’s new research to validate those experiences. To find out how heels really affect women’s careers, University of North Carolina professor Sreedhari Desai and her team conducted a series of studies looking at how people evaluated women in a variety of work settings. These scenarios included leading a class, giving a presentation, interviewing for a job, and taking part in a negotiation, with the only variable being whether the woman was wearing high heels or flats.

The results? Women wearing flats were deemed more capable and prepared, and earned higher evaluations from both men and women in their 20s through their 50s.

It’s not really surprising, is it. What messages do high heels send? What do they suggest? What do they look like? Not things like capable and prepared, but rather sexy plus hobbled. They don’t actually suggest work attire at all, yet they’re mandated in many work places. The same applies to skirts, by the way – they’re not very practical and they’re the opposite of protective.

There’s truly no winning. On the one hand, women working in corporate jobs, retail and the hospitality industry are often required to wear heels as part of their dress code. It’s a norm that’s built on centuries of dressing women according to the male gaze, and forcing them to subscribe to misogynistic standards of femininity. But, as the study proves, women in heels are also taken far less seriously at work than women who wear flats.

Double bind. You have to dress in a way that will make the rest of us see you as both sexual and weak. Now get to work.

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