Go High Or Low? Where Do You Stand On Workplace Heels?
If you believed Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and The City,” it was all about the Manolo Blahniks. They were the key to her appeal, her power, her femininity.
Fast forward to now. If you believe Summer Brennan, author of the new book, High Heel,then teetering high heels are the symbol of power in the workplace for women—and have been connected to female identity for centuries.
Where do you stand on the shoe debate in the workplace?
Brennan writes in The Guardian, “For better or worse, the high heel is now womankind’s most public footwear. It is a shoe for events, display, performance, authority and urbanity. In some settings and on some occasions, usually the most formal, it is even required. High heels are something like neckties for women, in that it can be harder to look both formal and femme without them. Women have been compelled by their employers to wear high-heeled shoes in order to attend work and work-related functions across the career spectrum, from waitresses in Las Vegas to accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers.”
I am a shoe lover, and admit with great pride that early in my career I was a market editor for Footwear News, when I had the absolute joy of interviewing designers such as Ralph Lauren, Stuart Weitzman and more.
I do think shoes can make a grand personal statement, but I have never been one to teeter in super high heels for a full work day.
Because they hurt.
While high heels at work are a personal choice in this country, in Japan, women are mandated to wear high heels, which has prompted a nationwide protest.
“To protest against this form of discrimination, women have launched an online movement called ‘#KuToo’. The #KuToo movement takes a leaf out of the #MeToo movement as women finally speak out about the pain of having to work with heels,” according to The Quint.
“A lot of people are drawing parallels between having to wear heels at work with the discriminatory tradition of ‘foot binding’. While foot binding was a custom of applying tight binding to the feet of young girls to alter the shape and size of their foot, in some twisted way it is very similar in having to mandatorily wear heels to work,” The Quint reports.
Citing unsafe working conditions, in 2018 the Philippines banned “companies from forcing female employees to wear high heels at work, in a move lauded by a labour union which said it was one of the first countries in the world to do so to protect women’s rights,” according to Reuter’s.
In the United Kingdom, Parliament received a petition with 150,000 signatures asking to revise the dress code at some companies such as Price Waterhouse Coopers, requiring women to wear high heels at work, according to Above The Law.
“The UK’s Government Equalities Office drafted and published a guidance on workplace dress code compliance with the 2010 Equality Act. The Guidance is basically advice for employers, and claims to “set out how the law might apply in cases of sex discrimination where an employer requires female staff to wear, for instance, high heels, make-up, hair of a particular length or style, or revealing clothing.”
In this country, the news of Goldman Sachs relaxing its dress code has women confused because high heels, and power suits had become the norm and the expectation for women.
“We know that appearance matters for women and people of color in being seen as competent and worthy of respect,” Jaclyn Wong, a professor of sociology at University of South Carolina, tells the Washington Post.
“It becomes this difficult position: ‘Do I want to dress down because I don’t want to be seen as this kind of stiff and un-fun person, or do I want to continue dressing up because that’s the only way people will treat me with respect?’”
The talk over the necessity to wear high heels in the workplace to signify arriving to a position of leadership, is not just a generational issue or an affordability issue, but a comfort issue.
Kela Walker, TV host and producer; lifestyle expert at KelasKloset.com, tells ABC News:“There is something about a great heel that empowers me as a woman. They make me feel strong and feminine. Heels change your whole posture, you stand up straight, walk proud and feel empowered in a way that a flat simply can never do. Also, they’re the punctuation to every outfit. They can make or break a look. ”
But do your own survey and ask a woman in any industry what footwear she prefers to wear to work. Some insist high heels are done in the C-suite.
Abha Bhattarai writes in the Washington Post, “Across the country, women are trading in their high-heeled stilettos for sneakers and ballet flats. Workplaces are becoming more casual, and it is increasingly acceptable to wear sneakers to dinner. But analysts say there are other changes afoot, too: More Americans are working from home, and those who do go into the office are more often walking to work.”
According to Bhaattarai, “Sales of high heels dropped 12 percent in 2017, while sales of women’s sneakers rose 37 percent to $2.3 billion, according to the NPD Group’s retail tracking service. The sales decline wasn’t because of lack of options: High-heel inventory rose 28 percent from the year before, according to Edited, a London-based retail technology company. And the sagging sales didn’t have much to do with price: About one-third of high heels had been discounted by an average of 47 percent.”
Brennan adds, “The dominant narratives in society and media still struggle to see women as individuals. We are more often flavors, types. Public feminist intellectuals are routinely castigated for criticizing individual women with whom they disagree, even when that disagreement has not been expressed in a gendered or sexist manner. It comes up a lot when women fight about whether or not they should wear high heels.”
The history of high heels is that it was not gender specific until about 200 years ago; before that both men and women wore high heels.
Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, tells Quartz: “High heels—less practical than flat-heeled shoes for anyone not on horseback—soon became associated with supposedly female traits of frivolity and irrationality. By the 19th century, in Europe, the heel was ‘unassailably feminine,’ notes Semmelhack. Then European imperialism spread this idea around the world. ‘Once European men abandoned the heel in the early 18th century, the meaning becomes so hyper feminized that as imperialism goes global, those are the meanings that are brought with the high heel.’”
Semmelhack adds, “Heels are just things. They can be given any meaning we decide they have.”
Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, writes that her favorite book as a child, The Wizard Of Oz, featured the main character, Dorothy, whose red shoes are key to the narrative.
Feldt writes, “I’ve often felt like the wizard. As a leader, I’m neither omniscient not omnipotent. Our job as leaders is to help others see their own power, courage, heart, brains, and ability to get back to Kansas when they want to. Still, Dorothy was so afraid of the wicked witch that she didn’t realize the slippers she wore had more power than the witch.”
Feldt continues, “’You’ve always had the power,” Glinda, the good witch tells Dorothy at the end of her journey. When Dorothy asks why Glinda didn’t tell her that before, Glinda replies that Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her — she had to find out for herself.”
She adds, “And like Dorothy, women today are on a heroine’s journey. Our quest is for self-determination, equality, parity, personhood, respect, and what I call the Power TO. We are challenged to pull back the curtain on broken political systems and dysfunctional workplaces and create a new power paradigm.”
And we can do that in whatever shoes we see fit—high heels or not.
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com