The September issue of Vogue went viral not due to any top models or designers, but thanks to a woman used to getting attention for reasons outside of the fashion world: Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer. In her cover photo, Mayer stares at the camera, lazily embracing a tablet bearing her image. Since the article was published a few weeks ago, the spread has provoked major buzz, particularly among women.
Some op-eds have criticized Mayer’s decision to do the Vogue photo shoot. They argue that women have fought so hard over the years to prove that success is driven not by looks, but by brains. They say the photo is “playing into stereotypes” and Mayer’s actions are disappointing because it diminishes what women have accomplished in the workplace. Sociology professor and frequent CNN contributor Pepper Schwartz writes, “…a significant number of women, feeling not too distanced from the days when women CEOs were just a fond hope, much less an aspiration, were less than thrilled at the idea of one of the few women of real power still needing the affirmation of a Vogue fashion shoot.”
I disagree with Schwartz’s statement. In fact, I see these criticisms as a sign of just how far we are from gender equality.
As an analyst whose job is to understand human behavior and study how perceptions are formed, I believe that intangibles – looking beyond a resume or skill set – play a major role in any setting. What is interesting about the various reactions to the Vogue spread is that the majority of attributes that define femininity aren’t necessarily related to professionalism. For instance, while women have made huge progress in the workforce compared to the norms of our mothers’ generation, women still try to “fit in” to the male-dominated system. What Mayer does as CEO of Yahoo! is relatively new to many – and confusing to some.
The norm as of now is that beauty is something that requires validation from others. In some people’s eyes, it is something that can overshadow intelligence. More problematically, it is something that can make women look weak. These perceptions can be a huge disadvantage for women. I believe women should do what they can to make a difference. It’s time for us to embrace beauty as a strength, not a weakness.
My hope is that one day, women’s beauty is positively correlated with charisma, and that females won’t need to downplay beauty, but can embrace it. That one day, we won’t need to dress like anyone other than ourselves to fit in and succeed. That one day, women’s desires to be beautiful aren’t interpreted as a need for validation, but rather as a form of expression.
Frankly, it’s about time.