In June of 2012, the University of Virginia announced the resignation of its president, Teresa Sullivan. Faculty members received an e-mail indicating that the dismissal was due to a “philosophical difference of opinion” with the institution’s governing board. Sullivan had been with the university just two years, and in the opinion of some, had been let go for little or no reason.
In the New York Times Magazine, Sullivan’s allies suggested that she didn’t fit the governing board’s image of a chief executive. Sullivan’s fashion sense, which was typically academic, had apparently offended the higher-ups. During Sullivan’s performance review, she received comments that her dress was too informal. “I don’t know what the unprofessional dress was,” Sullivan told the Times. “I do live here at the university, so when I’m working out or doing something else here, people will see me.”
Would the same criticism be given to a man? The Times didn’t think so, citing the disheveled former Harvard president Larry Summers. And as a woman who worked in the business world for ten years, I don’t necessarily think so either. I clearly remember being called out by a superior for “looking like a college kid” because I didn't wear pantyhose to a meeting. The guys my age showed up in golf shirts and sneakers, and no one said a word.
Years later on the speaking circuit, a mentor took me aside and told me that my navy lecture suit was boring and that I should consult a stylist if I wanted to be considered sophisticated. I can’t imagine a male speaker being approached with a similar recommendation.
However, whether gender bias is alive and well in both academia and the business world (it is), is not really the central issue here. What people need to take from Teresa Sullivan’s story is that perception is everything. By many accounts, Sullivan was a good president who zealously advocated for the university community. People loved her so much that protests broke out when she was fired. And yet, her dress and demeanor caused some to form a negative impression of her that persisted despite positive performance.
An early boss once told me that I should dress for the position to which I aspired. I took her advice and as a PR account executive, I began wearing tailored suits and heels in preparation for my future role as a vice president. Less than a year later, I received my first promotion.
In this era of informal dress and communication, it’s critical to remember that reputations are often built on the basis of a three second first impression, and a big part of what people perceive in those three seconds is visual. In virtual environments you obviously have a bit more leeway, but when you meet someone in person, they take in your clothes, your hair, your body style, and your facial expressions and form an immediate positive or negative judgment. There’s no doubt that it’s worse for women, but in certain professions it’s pretty significant for men too.
Because there will always be things you can’t do anything about – like your height or that birthmark on your chin – you must go out of your way to overcompensate with the things you can control. I’ve found image consultants to be incredibly helpful in selecting the right clothes, shoes, jewelry, and makeup for my body and my position. One woman even had an opinion on glasses versus contact lenses. The results of just a few hours of time more than paid back the investment. The better I looked, the more audiences appreciated me. It was that simple.
Let’s all learn from Teresa Sullivan’s story. If we want to succeed in our careers, we have to look the part.