Bloomfest 2022: Amy Kean on Necktie Bias and the end of Gravitas

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In the second of our exclusive F Word series for Bloomfest 2022, speaker Amy Kean, Founder and Creative Director of Good Shout, tackles F for F*cking angry… about bias.

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Amy Kean, CEO & Founder Good Shout.

My least favourite piece of feedback was on a feedback form at an event ten years ago. I’d been chairing a session on social media measurement or some other equally abstract topic, and in the “any other comments” box, an anonymous critic stated: “Good event. Would be nice if the chairwoman wore a top.” 

Seems they thought my top was too low-cut and found it offensive. My entire performance had been reduced to how I looked. 

Not the research I’d quoted, the smart questions I’d asked or the lively debate I’d sparked. Nope. 

The anonymous critic just didn’t like how much of my de-colletage they could see. Was it a man or woman who’d left that feedback? We’ll never know…

The way women dress, the colour of our hair and makeup we wear have always been linked to perceived personal and professional value. 

A study from the University of West Scotland into how recruiters scan social profiles during the job application process found that women are judged most on their looks, whereas men are judged most on their content.

Labour MP Tracy Brabin was the subject of widespread criticism online in 2020 when her black dress slipped slightly off the shoulder during a speech in the House of Commons. 

Was she at work or in a nightclub, the trolls asked. In response to the loud and extensive hate, she tweeted: “Sorry I don’t have time to reply to all of you commenting on this but I can confirm I’m not… A slag. Hungover. A tart. About to breastfeed. A slapper. Drunk. Just been banged over a wheelie bin.” A reminder that this happened two years ago, and to a member of parliament. 

It used to be important for women to wear high heels at work, which is why so many of us swapped trainers for 4-inchers outside the office every morning. But high heels aren’t taken seriously anymore. 

According to a study carried out by Sreedhari Desai at the University of North Carolina’s Business School, flat shoes are now more closely associated with capability in women. 

Whack on some Louboutins and, statistically, you’re less likely to be taken seriously. I can’t keep up! (But at least I can run faster in flat shoes.)

Men aren’t immune from fashion analysis. Just in a more positive way, because what they wear does them favours. 

“Necktie bias” refers to the assumption that if a man wears a tie, he is considered more capable and has more authority in the office. Men at work have a uniform. You wear a suit, you are professional. You’re the boss! 

The bias doesn’t end there. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book Blink – about the snap judgements we make in life – around 68% of US CEOs are over six-foot tall, and all of those CEOs are men. 

Why do tall men get so many positions of power? Because of another dangerous engrained assumption. It’s not just that men make better leaders; it’s that big men make better leaders. Because big men have gravitas. (Oh, and by the way: Donald Trump is six-foot-three.)

Gravitas

Gravitas is a word I’ve heard a lot over the years, because I’ve been told I lack it. Most women I know have also been told they don’t have it. 

The original Roman version of the word meant “seriousness” but over the years its meaning has been adjusted to represent weight, authority and power. 

Gravitas is a word that’s been thrown around the workplace like sexist confetti for decades.This fictional trait that’s so hard to pin down and define in professional terms. 

LinkedIn is filled with articles on “how to boost your gravitas.” And despite the word waltzes that dance around an uncomfortable truth, the answer’s obvious: if you want gravitas, be a big guy in a necktie. 

There’s every chance it was a woman writing on my feedback form, because women hold these biases too. Margaret Thatcher famously had vocal training to make her voice sound significantly lower than her natural pitch. More like a man. 

She was notoriously anti-women, and liked to align herself with men because that, she believed, was where the authority lay. 

These biases threaten our own careers and progression, such is the power and influence of patriarchal norms. 

When you think of gravitas, what do you see? Probably not a successful woman in a low-cut top or an MP in an off-the-shoulder dress. Because we’ve been brainwashed, too! 

So we need to resist the word. We need to denounce the word! Even if it’s on an anonymous feedback form, the sooner we lose gravitas, the better. 

To listen to Amy in action, join Bloomfest 2022 Let’s Talk about The F Word and be part of the conversation!

Tickets available here: BLOOMFEST2022 deadline to register 27 Nov for BloomFest on 30 Nov.