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Leaning In, in Sneakers

The fraught footwear of powerful women.

Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

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Every morning, I stand in front of my shoes and have to choose: heels or weakness?

No one’s ever told me outright that choosing flats — or high-top sneakers, or moto boots, or Toms, or the other lowly footwear alternatives piled high in my closet — is weak. But I’ve internalized the message nonetheless. I partly blame the fashion industry (never a hard thing to do). More so, I blame TV shows and movies, which never fail to depict powerful women marching down hallways or city streets (!) in pumps. And though I hate to admit it, I also blame the real, non-fictional women all around me on my morning commute, making me look (or feel?) bad as they head off to work in their high heels, each confident step indicating a certain degree of professional success.

That heels mark a woman as powerful is an insidious twist, with one sartorial tyranny swapped for another. Heels used to signal femininity of the mature, worldly, sophisticated variety. Even when worn by working women (think Joan on Mad Men), heels were a sign of womanhood first and foremost.

Yet somewhere along the line (perhaps, and no complaints here, as women started to rise in the professional world), high heels became a requirement for women conveying professionalism and authority. If I’m a woman who wants be taken seriously, I better be wearing heels. Choosing anything less — less uncomfortable, less stylish, less grown-upfeels like surrendering to a lower, lazier standard.

Sure, “adult” clothing isn’t technically a requirement for professional influence these days. The rise of Silicon Valley made it clear that suits and ties are no longer the uniform of success, and even banks and law firms have followed suit, so to speak.

But does the same apply to women? As a millennial working in digital media, I have the privileged choice of wearing flats (or even — gasp — sneakers) to work each day; and on most mornings, as I stumble bleary-eyed to my closet before trekking to the subway, I’m grateful for that choice. But it only takes one run-in with a woman in high heels to make me question everything: not only my suddenly-sloppy outfit, but my status as a professional, my authority as a boss, my command as a leader.

Maybe it’s because I’m short, or because I look even younger than I am. Maybe it’s because, like in so many areas of life, the progress men have made in loosening the grips of office dress codes hasn’t yet reached women. Maybe it’s because women will simply always feel more judged by their clothing, bearing the burden of so much meaning read into our clothing choices. Maybe it’s because, for women, professional power and sex appeal are still tied up in one another.

Regardless of the reason, if Zuckerberg can rise to the top in a hoodie, a woman should be able to in sneakers. Now if only I could remind myself of that the next time I step into an elevator with a well-heeled woman.