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Why appearance is still crucial for elite female leaders

How women look is still a defining feature of their status in the work place, according to research undertaken in the Roehampton Business School.

Posted: 5 August 2016

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Hillary Clinton, Democratic Nominee for the President of the United States. Photo: Lorie Shaull

A project undertaken by Sharon Mavin, Professor of Organization and Human Resource Management, and Director of Roehampton Business School; and Gina Grandy, Professor of Strategic Management at University of Regina, demonstrated that women have to contend not only with entrenched ideas of leadership as ‘male’, but also with a complex set of rules that drives perceptions of their performance based on their physical appearance. This includes conforming to traditional expectations of what it means to be a ‘respectable’ woman.

Based on interviews with 81 women from leading companies in the FTSE 100/250, and from women influential leaders in a UK region, Professors Mavin and Grandy identified Respectable Business Femininity: the processes by which women have to navigate these rules in order to retain power, respect and credibility in the work place.

Professor Mavin said: “Although there are standards defining the ‘right’ kind of appearance for men in executive positions, for women these standards are more ambiguous. The business suit is the accepted, male symbol of power and leadership. Women elite leaders, however, having a wider range of clothing to choose from, have to contend with much greater scrutiny”.  

One of the drivers of this, the researchers argue, is the fact that women elite leaders remain a minority, which makes them more visible and therefore open to scrutiny. The other is the persistence of traditional attitudes within society which demands ‘respectable’ femininity.

To protect their status, women elite leaders are required to display both masculine attributes which society tends to associate with leadership, whilst also demonstrating feminine attributes that women are expected to have. The research identified numerous ways that women leaders can fail to meet these expectations, from being ‘too informal’, ‘too sexy’ to being seen as ‘too male’. Women who fail to get this balance right can find their status destabilised.

Women elite leaders are therefore, the authors argue, ‘sometimes privileged’: advantaged through the senior position the hold, but with a more precarious status due their need to balance these often contradictory rules.

You can read more about Professor Mavin’s research in the LSE Business Review. The full paper is available in the July 2016 issue of Gender, Work and Organisation.

The Roehampton Business School offers a range of undergraduate and Masters courses designed to create business-ready graduates. Find out more on our website.

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