One of the best, and hardest, things about living in a foreign culture is that I am forced to face many of my culture’s paradigms. Recently I read a fantastic Op-Ed in the New York Times by Paulina Porizkova. I mulled over it for the next few months because it resonated deeply. Yet I wasn’t entirely able to articulate why. Why I felt such a sense of relief that someone had named something I found at best disheartening and at worst subversive to my confidence and esteem. Especially in the workplace.
A few months later here in Thailand I dressed for work in something I would have previously considered “too girly” for the office. I would call it Garden Party Wear if I was in the US. It was a beautiful tailored linen skirt with flowers which I’ve always loved. But I had rarely worn it before moving abroad because I didn’t consider it appropriate for the office. Plus, I didn’t go to many garden parties. Here, though, it was completely acceptable to wear Monday-Friday. Even though I am the head of my department and must dress in a way that projects an image of a leader. In Thailand leaders get to wear floral patterns regularly.
My first instinct was to be grateful I was no longer living in a culture that had a firm and somewhat narrow view of acceptable workwear for women. But that instinct is completely off base. The standards of appearance for women in Thailand (and Asia overall) are perhaps even more narrow than they are in the US. No, it wasn’t that I could be girly here. It was that I could be feminine and girly and not sacrifice any perception of intelligence.
Because this is one of the hardest things about ambition, intelligence, and appearance in the United States. The message to women and girls is that you truly can be anything. But the reality is that whispers follow the stunning woman who dresses in tailored and bright outfits (that might be considered sexy.) Exactly how was she promoted so high? And criticisms follow the women who are “butch” or “out of date” in their appearance. Have they completely let themselves go? Are they trying to be men? I myself have had my chest size discussed by a VP in a meeting regarding my potential for promotion. As though my cup size could affect my analytical or leadership ability.
“Women have worn tight pencil skirts and high heels at various times, which isn’t necessarily functional, but they might feel they have to wear them in their workplaces to be taken seriously, ” said Rebecca Arnold, professor of fashion history at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art.
“I think women’s work wear is more to do with being mentally comfortable, fitting in, and being seen as respectable.”
Appearance is tied deeply to our perceived ability to lead, to be liked (and to be followed) for both genders. But for women in the US it seems to be on a fixed inverse axis to our perceived intelligence. Especially at surface level. As our femininity rises, our perceived intelligence falls. Does that hold true after an hour long presentation or 6 months working together? Hopefully not. But the burden is always on us to carefully manage an impossible first impression. And it lingers where we compete with other employees for the next project, or the next promotion. Worse, the deck is stacked against us in the US, where as Paulina noted you can be anything you want, except that you can’t. So maybe it’s less of a fixed axis than a mysterious vortex of shifting sands and rules where it’s nearly impossible to know what’s acceptable.
The data supports these experiences. In Thailand, top leadership and business roles are more accessible to women (however they dress.) Thailand is one of the top 3 countries in Asia to have women in senior leadership roles at 31%. (And 74% of those are CEO or CFO titles.) At the same time, 4.2% of the Fortune 500 in the United States have women in the CEO role.
Even 15+ years in corporate America wasn’t able to provide clarity on the situation like moving abroad could. It wasn’t until I moved to Thailand and started adapting to the cultural and perception rules here that I realized a hard truth. No matter how it’s phrased our couched, the cultural paradigm of femininity versus intelligence that is so impossible in the US isn’t a business paradigm, it’s a cultural one. And it doesn’t exist everywhere. More importantly, the paradigm can be broken.
There’s something incredibly powerful about that. Once we step outside of a paradigm or rule it becomes so much easier to break again. To realize it’s not nearly as powerful as it seemed. That we can fight back against it.
*header image credit: AP Photos