There’s been a lot of talk lately about the so-called “lean in” concept, and the pressures put on young women in our culture to be and do it all, whatever “all” is, and work-life balance and all that. In the midst of which, as the mother of college-aged daughters, I often find myself wondering: would female executives like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (author of the “Lean In” concept) or Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer be where they are today if they weren’t so darned attractive? And what do I tell my daughters about the answer to that question?
Of course, female attractiveness is unrelated to merit or ability. That’s the feminist party line—and yet we all know that attractiveness matters. It matters whether one is male or female, but if you are female it matters a whole hell of a lot more. And yet, it’s a complicated subject.
Back when Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny, the rules by which women’s bodies were objectified in our culture were simple: men looked, and men set the rules. Today, women largely determine whether, and in what way, we will allow ourselves to be objectified, whether it is on a “Girls Gone Wild” video or a shareholders’ meeting; the difference is, we call it something else, like “owning our sexuality”—and men are not supposed to notice, unless they are talking about their wives or girlfriends.
Remember when President Obama stepped in it for calling California Attorney General Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general in the country”—which she probably is, by the way—and Obama immediately got smacked with the label of “sexist”? His crime wasn’t noticing an attractive woman; his faux pas was in saying he noticed.
We have entered a strange new sexual territory in which Sheryl Sandberg can wear a slinky red dress and glam it up in front of some computer infrastructure, but to state the obvious—that she is totally hot—is considered déclassé. In fact, the more beautiful a woman is, the less her looks are supposed to matter.
But they do. They may not matter in the way such things used to—nobody would suspect Sandberg of sleeping her way to the top at Facebook—but they matter. According to my own exacting scientific survey, which consisted of Googling the names I found in a couple of Fortune 500 “Top 20 CEOs” lists and looking at a lot of pictures, there’s practically no such thing as an unattractive female CEO. (I say “practically” because I did find one woman who either is admirably immune to our culture’s superficial obsession with looks, or who needs to find a new stylist immediatemente. Call me, sweetie.)
Of the top female executives, six easily qualified for the “wow” factor, and you could argue for a seventh, based on the fact that in her younger pictures she simply glows with loveliness. We’re talking way-above-average looks here, of the kind that could get a person work in the movies. Life insurance executive Deanna Mulligan bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Charlotte Rampling, who was ravishing in her day; pharmaceutical executive Heather Bresch could find work as a film double for actress Nia Vardalos.
Now for the guys. I am a sucker for the powerful-but-graying older man type, so I would have expected that plenty of titans of American industry would spike my pulse at least a little. Yet there were only two I could find who even came close —James Dimon of J.P. Morgan and Rex Tillerson of Exxon — (and I’m not sure about the latter; it may be simply that I’ve always thought the name “Rex” was kind of sexy). A lot of them the male execs I found, as with the female CEO’s list, fell into the “okay” category—neither stunning nor unattractive. Then there were my impressions of the rest of the guys, as recorded in my notes:
“Methodist church deacon, circa 1955”
“Sam Donaldson’s older brother”
“Oh my lord.”
Interestingly, the only obviously overweight person was a man. Even in our weight-obsessed culture, guys can still occasionally get away with being fat. Women executives simply cannot. Men who run companies get away with looking pretty darn average; to be considered “average,” a woman still has to rely on hair dye, expertly applied make-up and at least one layer of Spanx. And let’s not forget plastic surgery.
The flip side of stating the obvious—that women’s looks matter more—is its corollary: the penalty for unattractiveness is much, much harsher than it used to be. A century ago, when most career doors were closed to women, pervasive gender discrimination was a kind of shield against the harsh judgments of the bathroom mirror, but that’s no longer true. Some things, like bad skin, you can fudge; some things, like extra pounds, you cannot. Stunning beauty is, by itself, no longer a requirement for female success in a narrow range of fields (actress, opera singer, society hostess). But 99.9 percent of the time, unattractiveness is, by itself, an absolute disqualifier for high visibility in almost any career, if you’re a woman.
I wish I could tell my daughters something different, and reassure them that talent and character and hard work are all that really matter in life. I wish I could tell my daughters—who are both lovely, by the way—that what really mattered was their own pleasure in their bodies, and their health and well-being, and to disregard all these superficial standards of beauty because they just don’t matter. But if I did, I’d be lying.
If you’re interested in purchasing Lean In or Tracy Thompson’s book, The New Mind of the South, please consider purchasing it here (see the links below). The Broad Side will receive a portion of the cost, which we’ll use to help pay our fabulous writers and keep our unique content coming!