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Get Out of My Hair!

Vivia Chen

August 1, 2012

By-Amir-Kaljikovic_FotoliaWhat drives working women crazy? The persistent gender gap in pay? Nope. The dearth of women in the executive suite or top law firms? Nope. Sexual harassment on the job? You're not even warm.

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.


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As a sexist guy who is trying not to be, I can tell you that I and many other guys instantly judge attractiveness on hair length--in the workplace and everywhere else. Long hair is "younger" and "more available." Short hair is more "mature" and "professional." I'm not saying that's right; I'm saying that is what we sexist dogs do. All day long.

Your effort to use this post to rewrite your prior musings on the same subject only works if you assume we are all too lazy to compare the two. You began the first article by criticizing HRC's hair for Pete's sake. Thankfully, HRC has enough self confidence to ignore the advice of petty people and to keep on doing what she is doing. If she actually paid attention to vapid comments like "keep you hair tidy and you will go places," she would likely be where you are now -- blogging instead of doing.

You could have written a gender-free article about good grooming generally, but you chose to attack women who have decided that the "neat and tidy" bob you apparently deem acceptable is is not for them.

Let me guess -- significant other has been spending too much time at the office with a woman whose locks are longer than yours . . .

u lie

first u putdowne clinton an all women like her then you start mor crap.

you suck

The pay gender gap, insufficient women execs and sexual harassment are all important.

But they are far more complicated issues to which to respond than your rather ageist post.

Nor is hair a "fluffy" subject. The personal is political. Try asking a minority individual who fears rejection in the workplace based on the natural texture of his or her hair how "trivial" this subject is.

Admittedly, I made a snarky comment in response to your initial post. But, understand that I was responding to a snarky post. That said, I agree wholeheartedly that women should support women. I do appreciate your candidness on important topics like identity, equality and camaraderie.

As we women age, the pressure to stay and look young seems to increase. So, for you to add to that criticism and pressure, especially as a woman (who’s educated), is ironic and hurtful. You said you “…find women over 40 with very long hair unsettling—particularly if it is straight and hangs more than a few inches below the shoulder. (And don't get me started on straight, blond long hair on women over a certain age!) They look rather sad and dated to me…” Your words are cruel.

And no one is missing the point. As women, we all get it.

The world belongs to the young and pretty.

Sorry you took so much flack.

The most important part of that blog appeared in the middle: "Corporate fashion stylist Gretchen Neels warns that all women professionals—even younger ones—risk coming off as flakes if their long hair proves distracting. "If you are one of the many flippers, twisters, combers, and caressers, stop it!" says Neels. "The constant fussing is a huge distraction to others who don't hear what you're saying because they are too caught up in your grooming/self-soothing routines."

Self-touch is a classic body language signal of sexual interest. With sexual harassment still widespread in law firms, women should be cautious about inadvertently sending a message about attraction. http://bit.ly/Obb1cd

On the other hand, if they choose to follow the advice of Forbes Woman that flirtation is a legitimate negotiation tool, go ahead and toss that man or twirl those locks. http://onforb.es/ODCSQA

Vivia, I read and enjoy (and share) many of your columns. Thought provoking pieces are appreciated whether or not I agree. Thanks for keeping on writing! You might want to check out this month's Texas Monthly piece on women. P.S. Went and got my hair cut this week.

To Motivated in NYC,
I don't usually respond to individual comments, but I appreciate your well-reasoned points. Thanks for bringing some sanity to the discussion.
V. Chen

I think it's disingenuous of you to claim that this is a "fluffy" subject. If you truly believe that why did you write about it? How can you possibly claim that womens' appearance can be important to their professional success -- I agree; like it or not, it matters -- while at the same time insisting that your article was just "fluff"? I think you're dodging the issue here, which was the ageism and the contemptuous tone reflected in the earlier article -- neither of which are inherent problems surrounding the choice of subject matter. I also think it's disingenuous to imply that you don't deserve to be criticized for it because your previous, more serious articles didn't get any comments. There are any number of reasons why your writing maybe did not inspire people to take the time to compose a response. The causal link you are implying is merely one possibility.

Aging and image are very touchy subjects and quite often we want to believe that we are the exception to the rule when often we are not. If I opt to wear my hair long, I find it makes me tired and gaunt looking, so I don't do it. Some women are lucky to have long healthy hair that looks good, so they have more latitude IMHO, but those long locks can take a long time to maintain which for a lot of women, I think the time to worry about a perfect coif everyday demands too much time from an already busy schedule.

I think you’ve missed the point (same goes for all the critics who have blasted you for this article). I read your article last Thursday morning, having spent the night before watching Jennifer Siebel Newsome's "Miss Representation" documentary with a diverse group of professional women in the legal field. Your blog the next morning, which I read in dismay over my morning coffee, hits on the very nerve Jennifer Newsome exposes... Women supporting other women is the most fundamental way we can move the needle forward for women in positions of power and influence in politics, Corporate America, media, etc. When a woman in a position of influence in media, such as yourself, criticizes the hair of the highest ranking woman in our country, it send a message. It’s no wonder male pundits tear Hilary to shreds when her fellow women can’t support her. I was actually so moved by Jennifer’s documentary that I ordered it overnight from Amazon (you should do the same!), just so I could watch it with my mother and sister. Can you guess what their first comment was when a sexualized image of Jessica Simpson in a bikini flashed across the screen? “Wow, she hasn’t looked like that in a while!” I paused the DVD and commented that it’s criticism like this that explains why roughly 65% of women and girls have some sort of eating disorder. Heck, my own mother told me last night that I’d get more male attention if I showed some skin. Let’s face it, we need to silence the judgment and support one another. I’m definitely guilty of judging other women, but Vivia, you and your column are in a great position to promote positive change.
So, this was my personal reaction to last week’s column. Who cares what Hilary’s hair looks like? Can you imagine what it was like for Chelsea to go through puberty in front of the world? We certainly cannot focus on Hilary’s accomplishments and service to our nation when we're focusing on her style. It’s our first amendment right to criticize any female politician’s politics and disagree with her views, but when we focus on her looks, we close every door she has tried to open for those behind her.
I don't have children, but if I have a daughter one day, I want her to feel comfortable with how women are portrayed in the media. This has to start with teaching our young children to support one another, and it must end with getting more women in positions of power -- decision making power. Women are already leaders -- just boycott “Toddlers in Tiaras”, TV shows portraying violence against women, etc. -- and support women writers, local women citizens and students running for public office… we all know the list goes on and on. Because I’m held accountable just like you, I promise to continue reading your column, Vivia. I may not always agree with what you write, but you are writing, just the same. You’ve made a voice for yourself and that’s what we should all support.
And I’m not sure how your hair looks, but I bet it's fabulous.
Women for Women -- let’s pass it on!

Vivia's remarks may not be based on imperical evidence but let's be honest, we have all commented or at least thought about another woman's appearance - hair, dress, etc. We all have our own idea of what is "appropriate" office attire. It is unfortunate that firms have to publish a dress code so that the summer associates would know not to wear capri pants and fllip-flops (yes it has happened).

When a man wears long hair or pierces his ear, we notice, and it can be distracting. Unless his talent outshines his sartorial shortcomings, he is better off following the more established pattern. Many years ago I worked at a firm that only had 3 female partners. One was a brillient woman who made her mark and survived on brains and talent. Her hair had no style at all, she wore orthopedic shoes and rotated the same 5-6 suits - clean but frumpy. She was a real value to the firm despite her lack of style BUT she will also be remembered for her appearance.

Law firms are very slow to adopt change - even in the 70s most men only wore white shirts and women only wore skirts and dresses. When woman were "allowed" to wear pants, it had to be a pants suit. Every letter that was mailed was in the same type face, format and style. We all answered the phone the same way - don't get me started on how people answer the phone. When you think about it - we've come a long way. My advice - If you want to march to your own drummer, you'd better be really good.

To DMM--Actually, I have covered the gray hair thing: http://thecareerist.typepad.com/thecareerist/2012/04/your-gray-hair.html


Aaah. If the reaction to long-hair-over-40 article was the the frying pan., are you ready for the fire?
Try writing about the research regarding mens' perception of the lack of cover up of the wirey grey strands that plague pretty much all of us (though starting ages differ) except natural blonds? Have fun.

As a new attorney of a certain age, I have been 'advised' as to the suit to wear, the height of my heels, the color of my lipstick, the size of my jewelry and the brand of my brief bag. I can now add the length of my hair.

If I had to worry about all of that along with whether my advice is right, I would never get my work done.

I think what most female attorneys do is pick the cut when they get out of law school, and never re-evaluate the look. While we advise our clients to review every few years, we are guilty of ignoring our own advice.

I think the problem with the article was that it appeared to be IMHO blatantly ageist.

Good reply Vivia. I was also stunned by how seriously so many of my fellow women lawyers take the hair and appearance issue. I read it as a interesting light piece that honestly reflected a real perception issue which women will ignore at their peril. Look, men have the same kind of issues--untrimmed nose and ear hair, or bad comb-overs are examples of grooming issues that result in demerits with some parties--whether you like it or not. These things can be overcome by great performance, and its up to each individual to decide whether freedom of grooming is worth some negative points.

The reason that few people commented on your post about the challenges facing women in the partnership climb at major law firms is that it WAS based on empirical data. The reason so many people commented on your hair post was that it was your opinion being passed off as fact. Had you included some quotes from partners at major firms stating that women over 40 with long hair will never make equity partner, you undoubtedly would have received a different reaction.

As the old saying goes, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

Hi Vivia - a great read as always. I actually read your post about long hair for more 'mature' women and was about to post a pleasant comment (as it's an interesting view I hadn't heard of before your article) but, my boss called me into his office. Anyway, I don't have a view about the long hair topic (it was somewhat thought provoking though) but I do have a view about why people got worked up about a fluffy hair article vs a 'real' topic. Simply put, there are TONS of articles about how women are faring in the legal profession (most days you open your google reader there is something about it) - there's so much about that issue I think people tend to react less these days (unless the article espouses an extreme viewpoint). Although there are some articles about corporate dress, there certainly aren't as many and your article was somewhat unique. Additionally, whilst I think you maintain your own independent views about the issues you write about, most of the time your articles are 'for' women (the fluffy hair article probably came across as criticising some women).

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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