Reuters: Gender, sex, power, and stillettos

Reuters: Gender, sex, power, and stillettos

I have a piece at Reuters today, about how wearing high heels can affect other people’s behaviour toward a woman – and what that finding tells us about gender, sex, power, and attraction:

A new study out of France’s Université de Bretagne-Sud in finds that men are more likely to lend a helping hand to a woman wearing high heels. In the study, social psychologist Nicolas Guéguen found that men were more likely to answer survey questions if the woman asking them was wearing heels than if she was wearing flats. Similarly, Guéguen (who has also tackled the research question of whether carrying a guitar case makes a man more likely to succeed in getting a woman’s phone number) found that men were more likely to help a woman pick up a dropped glove if she was wearing heels.

That high heels change how straight men respond to women is hardly surprising. After all, high heels change the way you walk, the way you stand, and the way your clothes fit your body. As a culture, we have decided that the alterations heels produce in how women carry themselves are desirable, a decision we’ve stuck to for over 50 years. In recent years, the trend pendulum in high heels has swung toward atmospherically high, with platforms and hyper-narrow stiletto heels giving way, recently, to 1990s-nostalgia in the form of chunkier heels. These are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor variations; our cultural penchant for high heels is entrenched, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

Some have questioned this study’s methodology, and not without reason, but its findings raise some interesting questions. Are men more likely to respond to women in heels because they find them more attractive, and are they more likely to answer survey questions from or help an attractive woman? Or are the men who help a woman in heels pick up her glove correctly perceiving that a woman in heels is in fact, physically, less stable than a woman in flats, and might therefore be more likely to need their help? Or, more interestingly still — and more troublingly — does a woman’s perceived instability and vulnerability make her more physically attractive to some men?

You can read the whole thing here.

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The Sydney Morning Herald: Hillary Clinton presidency would spark a backlash

The Sydney Morning Herald: Hillary Clinton presidency would spark a backlash

I have a piece today in my hometown paper, The Sydney Morning Herald, about the promise and peril of Hillary Clinton – or any other woman – running for President:

My grandmother turned 100 years old this May. Grandma Belle, a New Yorker born and raised, is five feet flat, and she is formidable; she does the New York Times crossword every day, she plays a mean game of Scrabble, and she brooks no nonsense from her five grandchildren, all of them women. Belle was born six years before the 19th Amendment granted American women the right to vote, and the sheer amount of American history that has unfolded in her lifetime boggles the mind.

Earlier this month, Hillary Rodham Clinton went to Iowa, which suggests that a Clinton presidential candidacy in 2016 is all but inevitable. It seems that a Clinton win is highly likely. As a feminist, I yearn for a woman to run for president, and I yearn for a woman to win. Whether or not it happens in 2016, it will happen. And it will, without question, be a watershed moment, and I will shed tears. I will think about my grandmother, born before suffrage, and about my mother, who was among the first women to benefit from the wave of inclusion that swept through  the United States’ most prestigious educational institutions in the 1960s and 1970s. I will marvel at how far the US has come since my grandmother was born, and I will envy the little girls being born on that day, who will grow up having never known a world in which the US hasn’t had a female president. And then I’ll think, “oh God, here come four to eight years of virulent sexism”.

If a female president is all but inevitable, so too is the cultural backlash that will follow her campaign and her victory.

You can read the whole thing here.

Daily Life: Are women still unsexed by power?

Daily Life: Are women still unsexed by power?

I have a piece at Daily Life today, about whether power and femininity are mutually exclusive. I call on the research I did for my undergraduate thesis at Princeton, about young women working on Wall Street trading floors.

“Women have all the power in the world,” a new acquaintance recently told me. “Because men want to have sex with them, and women can get men to do whatever they want if they promise or withhold sex.” As I gently but firmly told him, that is… what is the word I’m looking for? Ah yes, bullshit. That is bullshit. First of all, that kind of power, thanks to our culture’s rigid ideas of what’s sexy, is one that’s available to very few women. And even the women who have it find that it expires as they age because, again, that narrow definition of sexiness dictates that older women can rarely be sexy. That power, to use the promise of sex to get what you want from men, is a power granted to women by men, and it can be taken away awfully easily. And as for withholding sex to get what you want from men,  I think we’ve all read enough rape statistics to know that if a man wants to put his penis in something badly enough, he will do it. That form of power has limited uses beyond the pages of Lysistrata.

For now, the kind of power that counts – the kind that runs companies and countries – is the masculine form of power, not the sexy, feminine kind. It’s the Wall Street kind of power, and what we know about women who wield that kind of power, or aspire to, is that they often have to sacrifice their femininity to do it.

We know that women who want to get ahead in the corporate world feel pressure to downplay their femininity – they deliberately don’t display photos of their kids in their offices or don’t befriend their women colleagues. We know that once they get into positions of power, that pressure continues – they deliberately avoid tackling parental leave policy or shy away from identifying as feminists. To get to the top, and to stay on top, they have to unsex themselves. Of course, femininity is a fluid concept, and one that’s often forced on women. We’re socialised from an early age to, say, appreciate a nice bunch of flowers, and it’s frowned on if we don’t. And then, if we want certain kinds of careers, certain kinds of power, we have to mask that learned appreciation. It’s complicated, and exhausting, and easy to screw up. There’s a reason why they call gender a performance.

You can read the whole thing – including some more findings from my thesis – here.