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Is Cleavage the New Power Tie?

Vivia Chen

May 1, 2013

Photo by auremar_FotoliaI've always thought that only bimbos show cleavage at work. According to one of my Wall Street friends, though, I'm seriously misinformed.

"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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I have a son that I breast-fed. I love my boy who grew up to be a gentlemen and a friend to me. My husband and I, we made this amazing human being together, and he thinks my breasts are beautiful. I don't need anyone else's approval & any domination I have over these men is a mutual reciprocation. I have all the adoration I need. Perhaps if people would get 'real and honest' about their motives for showing cleavage we would not have these conflicts. Breasts are personal, not professional. They go with me to work but I run the rodeo, my breasts are not the starring role there. I love my son and the idea that a woman would use her nurturing breast to dominate or control him makes me sad for her, then angry at her. Sad because she will not know mutual respect, angry because she is making victims, not relationships. I already have the confidence from experience to understand my knowledge & expertise will dominate and control the room. My breasts will happen to be there, but my cleavage won't. So for you women who feel that cleavage is power, it is if used in its proper context. The power to grow and nurture a future generation of people. People are not dumb, they know when someone is trying to dominate and control them they just may not understand why. Exposing yourself reveals your own inadequacies and self-doubt. That you need to keep others subjugated, off-balance and distracted from your real agenda, which is anything from covering up your inadequacies or worse, some form of extortion. Why would anyone want to trust their business and money to that example? They don't, and they won't.

It's tricky, but yes, it can work (at least in the corporate world). The key is to have the right attitude and outfit to go with it. A good quality dark suit, low pumps, and some cleavage can convey an "I'm incredibly self-assured and consequences be damned" attitude, but one must make sure NOT to be too friendly or approachable while wearing lower cut shirts. Cleavage should never be accompanied by anything too frilly, feminine, or smiling too much. No touching (not even a friendly pat on the shoulder) of colleagues while wearing such outfits. One really has to have an "ice-queen" image to pull it off well.

Cleavage is an integral part of fashion and makes style (as well as social) statements. As a statement in the workplace, the type and amount of cleavage can say different things. Lots of clamped together cleavage can be inappropriate where a more subtle cleavage could add just the right amount of style. Remember the 80s? Shoulder pads, high heels and high hair?? The clever women use a mixture of their assets to give an overall impression. I'd suggest that the women who use cleavage well don't get noticed for their cleavage in the same way that women who use makeup well don't get noticed for their makeup.

In response to Dr. Golden, I am a male and I am fine with the statement about sexuality and drive, however that could equally be said about females as well. It all varies individually, and I see no reason why a woman wouldn't have as high of a level for sexual expression or sexuality as a man. The only difference is that these notions, as socially constructed and perpetuated, have served to condition and teach women to hide and subdue their sexualities to the detriment of the struggle for gender equity and social change more broadly. So things are not as cut and dry.

"How much cleavage a woman can or should show" . . . Less than the woman in the illustration. If she can show that much and still not be dissed for unprofessionalism, she's already got the power. Success begets success so a high dollar divorce lawyer can enhance her bulletproof reputation in an outfit like this; not the rest of us!

If breasts are considered a private area then I don't see how it's decent to be showing cleavage... Using sexual harassment by displaying breasts to get attention or to throw the opposition off, is not at all okay.

"Men view women's breasts as "sex organs": Displaying them renders the owner a mere sex object"

Correction. Having them renders you a sex object to men. Use the force!

I was wondering if you can illuminate an issue for me that is "Why do you think some women show cleavage in the workplace - do they realize its distracting to men?. Is it not easy for them to avoid showing it?


As a personal image consultant, the primary reason companies hire me to teach their employees appropriate workplace dress is "too much cleavage". It is quite distracting and not acceptable in most offices where the leadership is the baby-boomer generation.

If you want to climb the career ladder I recommend that your appearance be stylish, current and appropriately covered.

If cleavage is a career booster, perhaps I'd be CEO by now if I had some to flaunt??? Some women are incredibly well endowed, which causes them some wardrobe challenges. However, intentional cleavage at work is a wardrobe malfunction. There is no upside. Too much cleavage at a deposition might even get the lady lawyer sanctioned in some jurisdictions...

There are better ways to throw a guy off-guard in a deposition, like rubbing his testicles during a break and perhaps taking even further. Why stop at cleavage?

"Plus, she adds, they might assume you are playing the 'cleavage card' for advancement or favoritism."

LOL, because that's exactly what you are doing.

As someone who works hard to try to tastefully conceal a large bosom every single day at work, I am constantly self-conscious about this issue. Because there will always be people ready to condemn a busty woman for somehow trying to "show off" on purpose. I literally can not hide the shape of my chest unless I'm wearing a burkha or a box. And I literally can not avoid a teensy bit of cleavage unless I'm wearing a turtleneck. Please try to remember that many of us are just built a certain way and are not trying to get attention for it just by going out in public. Maybe people just need to get over the fact that women have a different shape, and sometimes you're going to notice? It's true that the line between supposedly 'tasteful' cleavage and 'too much' is a fine one – because that line is completely subjective.

If a man, in a professional setting, wore a shirt, no tie, and the top shirt buttons were unbuttoned so that several inches of hairy chest were revealed, what would you, a professional woman sitting opposite him, think? That's how a man thinks of a woman showing cleavage in a professional/business setting. If your reaction is "great, let me see more", that's how you should expect men to react. Showing cleavage, even a small amount, is intentional - women (and men) look in the mirror in the morning before leaving for work. So if you show any cleavage, and how much you do show, reflect what you want people to see when they look at you. And both men and women you encounter will look at you knowing that.

Its a hard pill to swallow. In one case you have people saying that showing cleavage could work for your benefit but then you have women who don't want you viewing them as a sexual object. The fact is like to post mention women are more likely to have issues with other FEMALES vs the men.

As a guy, I will say there is nothing less attractive than a woman who shows off her cleavage in a professional setting. It may throw me off to see cleavage but only because it will make me disrespect you and not because it makes me desire you.

Meghan, I disagree. It is not aberrant for men to have a high level of sex drive - it is normal male sexuality. It is their responsibility to manage their behavior in the workplace. All I'm saying is, why would we want to make it harder for them to focus on what we are saying rather than on the shape of our bodies?

Really, now. Women have worked long and hard to attain a level of professionalism in the work place equal to the men. Why would we want to give up ground that we have been working to gain since the 60's?

Gail, if men have such trouble managing their sexual feelings in the workplace, maybe they need to work somewhere else. Or get professional treatment.

My guess is that Paula above is ugly. Just a guess.

As an executive coach, I think this is appalling bad advice. Women have enough difficulty making our voices heard. And men have enough difficulty managing their sexual feelings in the work place. Give the guys a break and button up!

men are dogs....will show cleavage if i want. i'll make sure i have a bowl of water for the dogs.

Men view women's breasts as "sex organs": Displaying them renders the owner a mere sex object.

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About The Careerist

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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