For women leaders, business can be a minefield of personal image challenges. Experts estimate that up to 95 percent of our communication is nonverbal, so even as women achieve more prominent platforms, the majority of what we communicate is still through external visual clues. This creates the very real challenge of authentically aligning the messages we speak to our outer appearance.
The appearance of a job or political candidate, business partner or clients impacts our opinions, whether we acknowledge it or not. While we still have strides to make in gender equality, many women are discovering that their outward appearance may have unintended consequences.
Appearance Still Impacts Influence
In an ideal world, all leaders would be evaluated by their effectiveness and character. However, seemingly innocent choices impact the influence of powerful women leaders across many fields. For the female executive, it’s an added layer to be considered in developing an authentic leadership style — the fact is, as a professional woman, wearing inappropriate attire can undermine your authority.
Just look at the political field, where the power and perception of women is still heavily influenced by their outward appearance. Margaret Stuntz-Tresky’s thesis “Clothing Makes the Candidate?” posits that “media coverage that underscores traditional sex roles or highlights women’s gender or appearance may well contribute to and exacerbate these inherent hurdles to power.”
Stuntz-Tresky compiled decades of research to exhibit that “studies in a variety of fields and settings have demonstrated that clothing has a significant influence on perceptions of trustworthiness, expertise, knowledge, intelligence, success and more — all the makings of source credibility.”
Dressing to Impress — and Establish Credibility
The way we dress goes beyond fashion to what The Style Concierge Sybil Henry calls “personal style” — i.e., the way we dress to represent our authentic selves, so we can attract those who appreciate who we are internally.
The challenge is to be taken seriously so that your message is heard and you don’t lose that sense of personal authenticity.
As Henry notes, when you work with a business, “you sign on the dotted line to represent their brand and need to find a way to be authentic within those constraints. Choosing a company is no different than choosing a mate — you have to find a match in values and culture so you can authentically align yourself with the company values.”
Whether we like it or not, every career and industry has a uniform that signals credibility. That uniform varies widely for doctors, artists, bankers, and fashion models, of course — what signals credibility for a runway model would undermine the credibility of a brain surgeon.
How to Balance Authenticity and Personal Style
When working with women executive or entrepreneurs, Henry helps identify her client’s authentic self — and find a credible way to express that, comfortably and confidently.
Corporate Image Coach Sarah Hathorn advises women to allow their professional images to speak on their behalf — and beware of wardrobe choices that undermine her brand. A few key pointers:
- Choose clothes that reflect leadership traits — e.g. don’t wear a 10-year-old suit if you’re a young, forward-thinking leader.
- Being comfortable in your position doesn’t mean yoga pants and tank tops. Women can be most comfortable by choosing professional clothes in the right fit for their body. For an executive, a well-tailored jacket allows for individualization and comfort — without completely ignoring the industry uniform.
- Details matter. If you’re a leader who encourages and embraces creativity, pay special attention to the details of your personal style — wearing the same “uniform” of black pants and blouse every day doesn’t communicate adventure, risk or creative style.
The image we chose can either support or negate our carefully crafted brand, along with the messages and the content we’re striving to bring to the forefront of the conversation.
Embodying your authentic brand is a process, but it sends a powerful statement and commands respect. In the end, it’s not about conformity or mimicry, but identifying your authentic self and wearing it, inside and out, with confidence.
Kelly Azevedo is the founder of She’s Got Systems, a custom coaching program that leads clients to get support, documenting and dominating in their fields. She has worked in startup, successful six-figure and million-dollar online businesses, helping owners create the systems to serve their needs.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.