“Why is your hair like that?” asked a slightly drunk attendee at the World Economic Forum, in Davos this year. “Because I like it,” I said, reflexively touching my fire-engine red, waist-length mane.
“But don’t you make life harder on yourself?” he asked. “Women don’t look like you in this world.”
It’s true. Over my 15 years in the conservative world of British business journalism, I’ve moved up to become an editor and manager—but haven’t lost my penchant for punk-rock hair, smokey eye make-up, and funky vintage dresses. Luckily, I’ve found that applying mascara doesn’t dissolve my journalistic skills. Dying my hair doesn’t eradicate my qualifications. And my off-beat individuality hasn’t destroyed my ability to manage people—quite the contrary, in fact.
But my personal style has, bafflingly, driven some of my colleagues and sources to distraction.
I’ve had one middle manager call me “rough around the edges” in front of colleagues—even though he would often rock up in t-shirts and a baseball cap. A woman manager questioned me, in front of a newsroom predominantly staffed with men, about how I got an invite to an exclusive party in London when I wasn’t “pretty, thin, or posh.” I’ve been advised to try a different style of make-up by some superiors, and given pictures of women’s faces painted in a more acceptable style.
But while it’s sometimes hard to be “different,” I’ve found it harder to not be myself. I love classical music, 1990s and 2000s industrial metal, and anything by Rammstein. I’m on a roller derby team, love wrestling, and have steampunk tattoos. But I’m also obsessed with policy-making, regulation, economics, and the derivatives markets—deal with it.
There’s nothing in a navy blue blazer or pair of flesh-colored tights that makes me better at my job, I’ve found. On the contrary, embracing my identity through my own fashion makes me more confident—and a better boss.
“Be yourself” is the most astute career advice I’ve been given about how to succeed in a career I love. But despite its sublime simplicity, it is actually the hardest advice to follow—especially if you’re a mixed-race woman in a white-male-dominated industry.
Women are still trying to break through that proverbial glass ceiling. We’re underrepresented in boardrooms and in leadership roles. We’re woefully absent across politics, business, and tech. The women who do break through feel the pressure to not “let the side down,” and to blend in with the drabness of men’s office-wear with feminized versions of the “uniform.”
You want to be taken seriously in a man’s world? Wear a costume, we are told. “Don’t dress for the job you have, but the one you want,” is the mantra that keeps us in our boxes. In the 1980’s, the trailblazingly tough businesswoman donned power-suits and shoulder-pads, accompanied by spiked heels to remind the office that she could neuter her male colleagues at will. (Think Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl.) Present day, it’s subtle, “tasteful” make-up, expensive fashion-forward suits, minimalist dresses, and pumps (bone-warpingly high-heeled, please). Our fashion is different, but we’re still stripping away individuality for the borg mindset—and calling it “dressing for success.”
Loads of love to the craftswomen at @Filippa_k for setting up the new edition of my uniform 🎀. Will be a pleasure to dress the same way to work for at least 5 more years. Even the baby bump approved of the pants 🙏. Read more on the subject in the interview with @ELLEsverige | Link in bio | #NotThatComplicated
A post shared by Matilda Kahl (@lilltrill) on Oct 7, 2017 at 1:35am PDT
We already know that your body weight can negatively affect your job prospects, income, and your chances of being a leader, especially for women. But fashion choices and how you decide you do your hair and make-up can also be a minefield. We don’t have to look far to see examples of why women leaders are scrutinized for their ability to do their job because what we look like.
You don’t have to look far to see people being more preoccupied with what female leaders are doing with their clothes and their faces than of their skills. When Marissa Mayer was appointed CEO of Yahoo!, many column inches were dedicated to her fashion, rather than skills. “It will very likely be a bumpy road for Mayer at Yahoo. But at least we’ll get to have fun dissecting her sartorial choices, and taking a couple of style cues from her, along the way,” said one. She also sparked a discussion over her decision to pose for Vogue.
Lauren Duca, an award-winning journalist who writes about current affairs for Teen Vogue, was derided for having an interest in fashion. But as she neatly replied in an interview: “It’s just such a flimsy way of attacking young people, specifically young women. It’s very bizarre that an interest outside of politics would be used to discount a right to a political conversation.”
I don’t profess to know all the answers. But when I fully embraced the understanding that it’s OK to be different, I also finally understood how to shake off the imposter syndrome that affects more women than men. As I grew more confident in myself, so too did my confidence grow honing my skills, and leading teams. Shrugging off the false mindset of “to conform is to perform” was a big turning point.
As a manager, life is a constant learning curve, but this realization has helped me in several concrete ways.
First of all, it has shown me the importance of individualism among those that report to me. Understanding that each employee is unique and has different strengths and weaknesses is key to getting the best out of them. It’s a truism that people leave managers, not companies—and any manager worth their salt knows that happiness comes from individual management. And of course, a happy team is a productive team.
Secondly, when you’re comfortable in yourself, you’re more confident and approachable. Being approachable and non-judgmental allows greater communication with your team. The more you talk, the more you bond. The more you bond, the more you are able to work through tasks in a productive way together.
Lastly, it’s important to set an example for others—especially women—that shows them a way to flourish by being themselves. We may be living in an increasingly automated world, but what will never be replaced is the need for a healthy culture at work. After all, we spend more time working than doing anything else. Life is too short to be anyone other than yourself.