Comfortable Shoes and the Gender Gap

new yorker“Lean In,” the best seller by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg on what’s holding women back, is once again shining a light on gender inequality.

It’s a topic that still merits discussion. And it’s particularly relevant in this era of states competing with one another to see which can most severely limit women’s health and reproductive choices.

Washington, a state that once earned kudos as a leader in gender equality, has fortunately avoided some of the worst of the march to the 19th Century. But we have to recognize that even this region is falling short when it comes to women representing women across the broader spectrum.

It’s true that we have had two women governors in this state. And, yes, we’re represented by two powerful women senators and three (out of 10) members of Congress. But those are the exception. We have to recognize that we haven’t had a woman mayor in progressive Seattle since the 1920s. And we have had precious few women supervising our iconic corporations. Nor are there many women beyond the token one or two on corporate boards.

Writing about conditions recently prompted Seattle Times editorialist Sharon Pian Chan to conclude that “businesses are only as successful as they are diverse.” She quoted Seattle-based political consultant Cathy Allen as saying that the gender gap is a self-confidence issue. She said that women need to be asked seven times before saying “yes” to a run for political office, whereas men only need to be asked once.

I would agree that it does take more resolve for women to make political decisions. There’s nothing that goes more against the gender grain than the need to stand up in a roomful of people and tell them why you’re the best of those running for office.

But that isn’t the only challenge for women in representative positions. I’d trace some of the differential, believe it or not, to shoes. Just think about women’s shoes versus men’s shoes.

The cover of the latest New Yorker (picture above) depicts the ultimate caricature in women’s footgear, a gladiator sandal with heels designed to lift the wearer into the stratosphere. Just looking at the high-rise clog makes you wonder if it’s a fashion statement or a Geneva Convention sanctioned instrument of torture.

Men’s shoes, on the other hand, are mainly designed for comfort. Most men have no problem standing and schmoozing at a political reception for hours. But for women, teetering on high heels or forced into pumps that push the wearer’s weight onto a cramped instep, an hour can seem an eternity.

There’s no question that women’s shoes can be and often are punishing. How can one be at one’s best when in acute agony? And how can one’s self confidence triumph when the fashion victim is suffering through the anguish of self-inflicted pain?

Extreme high heels are nothing less than a form of bondage and something of an anachronism in today’s world. I believe it was Gloria Steinem who once said, “Women won’t be truly equal until they can wear comfortable shoes.”

Which gets back to the question: What’s holding women back? If you believe Sheryl Sandberg, it is because women don’t put themselves forward and  “lean in.” If you believe Steinem, it’s because they lack self confidence and have been tricked into wearing uncomfortable shoes and risk becoming nothing but a footnote.

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