"Don't you know cleavage is the power tie for women?" asked my private equity investor friend, over drinks at an Upper East Side restaurant. "If you're at a meeting and you want to get people's attention, you wear something that shows cleavage."
When I winced, he scolded me: "It's not tawdry; it's empowering."
Cleavage as a career booster? Well, okay. Hey, I'm open-minded. But rather than rack my poor brains on this pressing matter, I decided to go straight to an expert: Elisabeth Squires Dale, the author of Boobs: A Guide to Your Girls. Though Dale clearly belongs to the breasts-equal-power camp, she also preaches that mammary glands should be deployed responsibly.
When it comes to lawyers and cleavage, Dale is fairly conservative. "Cleavage can sidetrack your legal career," she says. "It's not that the men in the room will see you as a sexual object—they might do that without any cleavage on display." The risk, she explains, comes from your "fellow female lawyers and/or [female] clients who may find it annoying and distracting." Plus, she adds, they might "assume you are playing the 'cleavage card' for advancement or favoritism."
So should female lawyers button up and totally avoid the slightest whiff of cleavage? Not at all. Dale says a bit of cleavage "might work well in a deposition, if you're trying to take a witness off guard." So, yes, she says, "it could be a career enhancer. . . . Not unlike a male attorney wearing a certain tie or suit. Yours is just a different cut."
The trickier question, of course, is how much cleavage a woman can or should show. Even my private equity friend, who claims to be unflappable in the face of cleavage ("I don't find it distracting"), admits that there is a fine line between "an acceptable amount" of cleavage and showing too much.
One of my fashionista friends says showing just a hint of cleavage can be stylish and even "tasteful." She says that wearing a shirt that's cut low can look "quite fetching" under a somber business jacket—but just "be sure that the neckline stops short of those breast mounds. . . . If you are spilling out, then it looks cheap."
"Spilling out" is an obvious no-no. But I'm still confused about where to draw the line.
So let's hear your view: Do you think showing—or hinting at—cleavage can lift a woman's career? Or is it always a bad idea?
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