not looking enough like a leader

Leaders are always under scrutiny. They can be critiqued not only for what they say, but the way they say it. And the way they look is also often up for comment.

Women leaders seem to come in for much more critical public commentary than their male counterparts. Think of the mainstream media on Thatcher’s bouffant hair, Julia Gillard’s blazers and buttocks and Hilary Clinton’s hair and pantsuits. Angela Merkel recently commented that “It’s no problem at all for a man to wear a dark blue suit for a hundred days in a row, but if I wear the same blazer four times in two weeks, that leads to letter-writing from citizens”. This was, she suggested, a double-standard.

Social media heightens the focus on women in leadership positions. The comments made by the public are often abusive and misogynist. Sometimes they even include rape and death threats.

The latest target of sexist derogatory remarks is Derbyshire’s Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Swann. Appearing on national television to explain emergency actions taken to prevent a dam collapsing, at least some people thought her hair more worthy of comment than the multi-service rescue response she was very effectively coordinating.

Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Swann’s hair was called scruffy, a toilet brush and a sign of lapsed standards.

While school leaders are always conscious of the fact that students, staff and parents may be scrutinising their appearance, most do avoid appearance-based trolling. The risk is always there, of course, that some kind of sudden media attention might bring unwanted and unwarranted comments. It’s too too hard to imagine a Rachel Swann style troll attack happening to a headteacher/principal.

Writing about the way in which media chooses to comment on women leader’s appearance, Amanda Hess from Slate Magazine said

In the United States, male politicians are set up with a pretty uniform dress code—dark suit, necktie, nondescript dress shoes—and it is never news. This is a code that evolved at a time when women did not run companies, states, or government agencies. By the time they migrated out of the kitchen and the secretary pool, women had no default uniform that would help them blend seamlessly into these male-dominated worlds. How every powerful woman chose to navigate that sartorial minefield became a reflection of her individual decision-making skills and thus code for her worth, her politics, and her feminism. Even seemingly mundane choices were seen as statements: Minnesota state Sen. Ellen Anderson was the first woman to wear pants on the Senate floor—in 1993. Hillary Clinton’s uniform of pantsuits (you know, a suit like a man wears, but for a woman) spawned endless think pieces. These wardrobes became the subject of political fascination not because the clothes gave any actual insight into these leaders as individuals, but because they reinforced the fact that they were women first and people second.

Hess’s argument might equally apply to women other than politicians. Her text might also speak to some of the hidden work that women leaders do – we must make ongoing choices about how we will represent ourselves to our communities, potentially critically communities. We are judged on the basis of those choices and they become code for how well we do our jobs.

How can we present ourselves as leaders first and foremost? What kind of wardrobe becomes over-masculine or too girly or too young or too dowdy or too unchanging or too fashionable or too boring or too much like my mother or too sexy or too tasteless or or or  – and therefore draws attention to gender rather than the job we are doing?

Many of the respondents to our survey referred to the need to dress to meet a public ‘gaze’ and we are very interested in this. We wonder what more when can find out when we finally get to have actual conversations!