No, what pushes some women to the brink is the subject of their hair. Seriously.
I learned that lesson recently. Last week, I opined that professional women over the age of 40 might think twice about wearing their hair straight and long (à la Joni Mitchell in the 1970s). As a result, I got hit with a flood of comments. (Above the Law, Huffington Post, and Corriere della Serra also riffed on my post.)
Judging by the hostile reaction, you'd think I was advocating that women over 40 be forced to get their fallopian tubes tied.
Among other epithets, readers called me "vapid and shallow," "idiotic," "disgusting," antifeminist, and just a "bad woman." One reader emailed me, suggesting that I repent ("I hope that you wish that you could take that article back on long hair."). Another made this conjecture: "I bet she can't even grow her hair long anyway."
An attack on my follicles? Ouch.
Let's take a deep breath. Now, let me ask this question: Is it possible that some of you are taking this subject a tad too seriously? I mean, we are talking about hairstyles, people.
Some called my post "shallow"—which I think is totally apt, because fashion and hair are inherently shallow subjects. So why get so bent out of shape over it?
Obviously, my post touched a nerve about women's self-image. Often, readers seem to want guidance about what to wear at the office (my posts about high heels, Birkin bags, etc., always generate a ridiculous amount of traffic). But others resent the idea that women have to abide by any "rules" about appearance. They say that it's unfair and unfeminist that appearances play any role in advancement.
Unfair and unfeminist? I don't disagree. But isn't that how the real world operates? From what I've seen, there is an unspoken code for both sexes about what's an appropriate look in the corporate world, though women are subject to more scrutiny. Most women in power do tend to sport shorter hair or, at most, styles that just sweep past the shoulder. (Yes, yes, I know "older" women like Demi Moore look spectacular in long, straight hair. But most of us are not movie stars with a personal stylist at our disposal.)
Some readers deny that something as superficial as hair can affect a woman's career. A number of them said they have succeeded at their job because they are simply good at what they do.
To them I say, lucky you. If ability is the only thing that matters, many more women should be in higher positions in law firms and corporations by now, no? It's a complicated subject that I've written about many, many times. While having a polished corporate look won't propel most women to the upper ranks, it's also naive to think that being good at your job is the only thing that matters.
Which brings me to the irony about these rants. When I write about much more serious topics like subtle sexism and ingrained inequalities in the workplace—and I've done many more of those articles than ones on fashion or hair—where were the champions of women's rights? Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a research-rich post about the challenges facing women in the partnership climb at major law firms, and I heard barely a peep from readers—only one comment to date.
So what does it say when people get more worked up about a fluffy post on hair than about how women are really faring in the legal profession?
You tell me.
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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.