Backwards in high heels

Manon Bradley, development director for the Major Projects Association, suggests that a lack of self-promotion could be holding women back, and urges employers to recognise this.

I was recently invited to speak at an event to discuss gender diversity hosted by The Institution of Civil Engineers.  It was a great event with lots of interaction with the audience.  One comment made from the floor was that sometimes, the reason that women don't get promoted is because they don't put themselves forward; they don't highlight their strengths; they don't shout about their achievements.

Well, let me take you to an alternate universe - one in which, in the world of work, people are judged not solely on their work performance, but also on their ability to wear high heeled shoes! RIDICULOUS NOTION!!! The women in this universe rise to the top on their 6 inch heels.  They dance around the Board room in stilettos and ask themselves why there are so few men in positions of power.

"Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels" 

Linda Ellerbee

The men, having only ever worn trainers of flats at school and University, topple and fall as soon as they have to wear anything beyond a 2 inch heel. "It's unnatural for us," they say to each other.  "Our pelvises don't work like yours - it's not fair to include high heel wearing as a measure of ability at work - it’s completely unconnected to whether we can do our jobs.  Why can't you just look at our work performance and judge us on that, rather than expecting us to do something so unnatural?"

"Well" - say the female managing directors and chief executives "it can't be that unnatural - Bob managed it and so did Dave.  And any -, it has always been like that.  You just have to practice."

But of course the men would be right - there is no connection between work performance and the ability to dance all night in 6 inch heels (unless you're a super model!)

There is no causal relationship between work performance and the ability to promote oneself.  However, there does seem to be a relationship between work success (ie. promotion to senior posts) and self-promotion - because self-promotion has been given significance it doesn't deserve. 

Many women start to try on their mother's shoes as soon as they can totter around.  They're encouraged with coos and giggles from all the adults present.  By the time they're 18 they've probably spent many hours in heels.  And by the time they are in their 30s (the career powerhouse years) they are more comfortable in heels than in flats.* It is "second nature" to them.  They could literally run rings around a 30 year old man who is tentatively trying out heels for the first time.

Just reverse this picture and swap heels for self-promotion. 

Little boys are rewarded for shouting "Look at me!"  Girls are not.  Subtle, and not so subtle, messages teach girls not to be pushy, not to show off - no-one likes a precocious little madam.  So they don't practice this particular skill.  Instead they get on with the business of working hard and passing exams.  And they do well at this - girls and women outperform boys and men at school and university.

And then, suddenly, they enter the world of work and are hit with a low blow. The very skill which they were discouraged from practicing for years and years is apparently just as important as A level grades and degree qualifications. They have to quickly learn how to master this skill and, like men in heels, it doesn't feel easy.

It is true that often women don't get top jobs because they don't practice self-promotion.  But that isn't the fault of the individual women.  Instead of telling women that they need to change let's challenge the assumption that self-promotion is a predictor of success - it is not. Instead, let's recognise that it has no greater relevance to work performance than wearing heels.  Let's create job descriptions and person specifications which no longer include this as an important skill.  Let's recognise that many women don't find it easy to speak up - so leaders need to be more encouraging of them, persuading them to take on tasks and volunteering them rather than waiting for them to raise their hand.

* clearly not all women wear high heels - but the fact that they don't all do so doesn't lessen the power of this analogy.


All this talk of high heels in the work place is a dangerous business in that heels might make us #DistractinglySexy .. The truth is that self-promotion only takes us, irrespective of gender, so far up the ladder. It is the generosity of colleagues to do some of the promotion *for* us, by means of recommendation and reference, that helps propel people to the forefront of their disciplines. We should *all* be encouraged to be open in our praise of those doing good work, irrespective of the level at which those people are working (and that should include the cleaner!)irrespective of the height of the heels in question.... Off to pull on my steel toe-capped kitten heels to venture out on site...