Many people have a set morning routine. Mine consists of swimming laps in the pool at Bryn Mawr College, the highly-selective women’s college where I serve as president. Since I don’t have a lot of extra time, I try to make this activity as efficient and easy as possible—so on many mornings, the leader of a renowned college with an 840-million-dollar endowment and 100-million-dollar budget walks across campus in sweatpants and a parka over a wet bathing suit. I don’t bother to comb my soggy hair, and I’m certainly not wearing makeup. As I walk, I pass faculty, staff and students. I cheerfully wave and sometimes stop to talk. Other times we just go about our mutual business.
But one thing never happens.: I never feel judged based on my appearance. No one snickers, no one looks at me funny and no one talks to me about this behavior as part of my performance review. By the same token, I can put on a dress, makeup and pearls and no one makes assumptions or negative comments about my attitude, my intelligence or worldview because of it. I don’t waste a lot of time and energy worrying about how I look, because I know that isn’t key to my success.
I’m glad that the contestants of the Miss America pageant are getting a taste of what that feels like. But while the recent decision from the pageant’s organizers to scrap their swimsuit competition and policy of judging contestants based on their physical appearance is a step forward, this type of judgement for women still exists—subtly and not so subtly—in too many workplaces across the country.
Female colleagues at co-ed institutions have told me they’ve had to consider the lengths of their skirts and endure lectures about their outfits, and same goes for my female friends who work in business and finance. One of my friends was asked to speak to a fellow colleague about her “problematic work attire” because she didn’t wear heels or dresses; another had to strategize ways to approach her supervisors to change their expectation that women wear stockings with dresses, even in the summer.
It seems like practically every other day, an article appears about the underrepresentation of women in the fields of business and finance, particularly in the C-Suite. Even in higher education, women are underrepresented in the highest levels of the professoriate and institutional leadership positions.
We know that the reasons for the absence of women are multiple and complicated—but they’re also simple and subtle. While it’s right to be focused on opportunity availability and bias, we must also pay attention to the small ways women can be supported or discouraged in their pursuits and burdened by considerations that men are not as often required to address.
Working for an institution that was built by and for women supports my leadership in many ways. One of them is that while I dress professionally, I don’t have to worry about what I wear. The time and energy I do invest, I do for myself. Perhaps part of this attitude comes from my own maturity—and resignation that there isn’t much I can do at my age!—but there is also no doubt in my mind that the way I am treated here, the comfort and lack of internal self consciousness about appearance, is because I work at a women’s college. Bryn Mawr is a place where women are valued not for how they look, but for what they can do. It is a place that is focused on supporting women’s success.
While I’m not suggesting that the only way for women to be successful in the corporate world or in leadership positions is to work in all-woman environments, I do think there is a powerful lesson from these environments about the conditions for women’s success. In environments where women are not judged for their appearance, they can focus on what really should matter—and succeed.