As the obstacles facing women in business become clearer, global communications and brand strategy specialist Natasha Mudhar, Global CEO of business consultant Sterling Media takes aim at the board room power suit and argues that women shouldn’t need to dress to impress in order to be heard.
A recent report found that FTSE 100 companies saw no change in the number of women in the board room whilst FTSE 200 companies saw a sharp drop, highlighting that despite discussions of the gender pay gap, the glass ceiling remains firmly in place. There are many more obstacles that stand in the way of women’s success in business, ranging from unequal pay to corporate fashion. Case in point: the power suit. Sounds like something from a Marvel flick. But the reality is, the boardroom ‘power suit’ is more sixties pin-up than Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman.
For years, as the Global CEO of Sterling Media – a multi-disciplinary, global business services and communications consultancy specialising in brand strategy – I have felt the need to dress in a certain way in order to be taken seriously amongst my male counterparts at important boardroom meetings. Whether it be launching iconic brands like Aston Martin in India or listing a corporate powerhouse on the London Stock Exchange, I have always held my own when it comes to success in a male dominated industry like marketing and advertising. Would I have been able to do so had I turned up to the planning meetings in a dress and pearls? I fear not.
I have always had my own style, and fashion plays a big part in my life. However, when learning my trade in the communication agency, I soon found that my idea of style began to sub-consciously change, involuntarily. I would attend meetings with the top names of the luxury industry looking to offer the brand strategy services of Sterling Media, and find that the chief sitting at the head of the table would hardly even aim a glance in my direction. It was only once I began speaking would his eyes widen, his posture soften and the opaque bubble clearly surrounding me would pop. Only then would he pay me the attention. I may have won that contract for Sterling Media but it wasn’t without its collateral damage.
The sheer fact that I felt like he wasn’t lending me the respect he was showing to the men around the table touched a nerve with me. Before you knew it I was wearing clothes that I imagined would make look more serious and as a business consultant ‘should’– cue the emergence of the ‘Boardroom power suit’. I was keen to be taken seriously, and I felt the only way to do so was to begin dressing as close to the males in the room as possible. How wrong it that? I felt like an element of my individuality was taken from me.
It’s only now that I have spent over a decade as a business consultant in the marketing and advertising industry that my portfolio does the talking. I have built up a profile that digs deeper than the clothes I wear, but there is no doubt that I was forced to buy into the power suit culture in the opening years of my career.
Now that the topic of equal pay and diversifying the corporate and global communications world with more women leadership is being openly discussed, I feel it’s the perfect time to address the power suit, and spread the message that women needn’t have to dress a certain way in order to be heard.
This is not advocating turning up to job interviews and board meetings donning a pair of joggers and a tee and expecting anything more than a scowl and a literal and metaphorical door slammed in your face, but it is saying that women should feel comfortable in their own individual style.
There is a difference between corporate wear and the power suit. I believe that as long as somebody, male or female, is dressed in a smart way – they should be judged on what is coming from their mouths, not what is on their feet.
Women should feel free to express themselves with their own choice of clothing, and the boardroom power suit is a regressive stereotype which has no place in business. We should be able to address a room, which may happen to be full of men, and be shown the common courtesy of acknowledgment regardless of attire.
21st Century business is not about fitting in. It’s about individuality, drive, passion and innovation – regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion or social class.
Let’s add dress sense to that list.