Women leaders are judged by wardrobe choices

Women leaders feel judged by their wardrobe choices

And they're frustrated at the cost of maintaining the professional 'armour'.

Female educational leaders feel pressured by the judgement associated with their wardrobe choices and are frustrated at the cost. A new study from Monash University and the University of Nottingham has found that women consider a blazer mandatory for instilling confidence in their leadership and feel conflicted between trying to look good and being respected.

Four hundred women took part in the survey, many of whom regard a blazer a necessary “suit of armour”.

Dr Amanda Heffernan, a lead researcher of the survey from Monash University’s Faculty of Education, and a former public school principal, believes women leaders devote excessive energy towards styling, thus diminishing their capacity to focus on their role as leaders. 

“While women are disciplined to focus on their appearances, their energy and effort are being funnelled into directions that distract and deplete them, rather than help them advance their work and careers,” she said. “We can see these frustrations reflected in our research.”

Dr Heffernan’s survey found that many women who are new in leadership roles risk over-doing the time, effort and financial investment to “look the part” of the leader.

“In the time that it takes to find the right items of clothing: the significant investment into ‘smart’ and ‘professional’ jacket,” she said. “The time that it takes to achieve and maintain the ‘right’ hairstyle; and the choice one participant made in the mornings between a long relaxing breakfast or spending more time applying makeup.”

Women surveyed also expressed frustrations at the inequitable reality they face to “meet expectations of appearance” in their jobs, compared to male leaders. Women working as leaders in academia reported the need for frequent wardrobe updates and additional cognitive loads to project the ‘right’ mannerism of authority and professionalism.

Professor Pat Thomson from The University of Nottingham’s School of Education believes traditional characterisations and perceptions of women leaders need to be dismantled.

“While wardrobe isn’t the sole determining factor of being a successful school leader, this research offers new insights about the experiences of leadership, life trajectories and the ongoing objective discrimination women face going for and within those high-level roles,” Professor Thomson said.

“Bodies are most often seen as sites of struggle and illness. We learn about leaders who are stressed, not sleeping, anxious and overworked. More attention needs to be paid to the physical toll that leadership of today’s schools takes on head teachers and principals, which is significant and it impacts on their longevity in the job.”

Dr Heffernan from Monash also expressed concerns over the large number of respondents who reported feeling physically restricted by tightly-fitted clothing.

“We also see it in the pain, discomfort, and restriction of movement described by participants when referring to their wardrobes,” she said. “As one participant commented: ‘I am torn between wanting to look good and be respected, but also angry that I have to do this a certain way’.”

The survey is part of a broader study of critical theories in management, leadership and administration, which is published in the book “Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research”, in a chapter titled “Manufacturing the woman leader: How can wardrobes help us to understand leadership identities?” 

The study hopes to highlight the persistent disenfranchisement of women in the workplace, and the inequitable treatment experienced by female leaders. 

When there’s a lack of precedents for those who do not possess the appearance of a ‘traditional’ leader (white, male, middle-aged) it’s easier for the world to dismiss them. The narrow and confined iterations of the traditional leader is changing, if only, granularly, but studies like this may help point to the chronic omission of the additional burdens women face when they undertake leadership roles.

Dr Heffernan and Professor Thomson host a blog called ‘Women Wardrobe and Leadership’ where they discuss their findings and share advice on how wardrobe choices shape and are shaped by school leadership practice.

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