Is there a difference between how men and women perceive the same situation?
Shaunti Feldhahn, author of The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace, examines female habits to see if they can stifle their growth due to the way men perceive them. An excerpt originally published on The Today Show, MSNBC.com.
The visual trap
As I’m writing these words, I’m sitting at a café in a bustling business area, watching an interesting dynamic unfold at a table nearby. A stylish thirty-something woman is eating with three men, arguing a passionate point that has something to do with risk management. But I’m betting that the men are missing a substantial amount of what she’s saying.
Why? Because her stylish professional outfit includes a low neckline and cleavage. And among the thousands of men and women I have interviewed and surveyed over the years, I have found no subject more universally misunderstood than what a man thinks when he sees a woman overtly showing a good figure.
Women tend to think, I want to feel good about myself… look stylish… make a good impression. When we hear someone caution us that we should watch what we wear around men, we have the indignant thought, It’s none of his business what I’m wearing. He shouldn’t be looking.
But the man thinks, She wants me to look at her body. No, look at her face. Is she flirting with me? Shoot, what did she just say about the loan failure rate? I missed it.
“Men are visual”
The subject of a man’s visual nature can be awkward and sensitive to discuss. It may engender strong reactions. Some women just shrug and say “What’s the big deal?” while others find it offensive. Regardless of where each woman lands on that spectrum, the data here is designed solely to bring women up to speed on a reality that men think we already know but that, in fact, is often misunderstood. This is one of the starkest examples of an arena where women may or may not be in agreement with commonly held male perceptions, yet realize it is definitely in our best interest not to be in the dark about them.
We are frequently told “men are visual” — but I’ve realized that many women don’t know what that actually means. According to brain scientists and researchers such as Michael Gurian, some percent of women — perhaps as high as 25 percent — are visual in a similar way to men. If you’re in that category you are more likely to instinctively understand men’s reactions. But the other 75 percent of women who aren’t that “visual” have very little concept, literally, of how men see them.
In 2001, when I was first interviewing a few trusted male friends for my novel, this is the subject that woke me up to how much I didn’t know about men. And, ironically, the scene that opened my eyes — that I was describing for the men — was a business situation. I had placed my male character, Doug, in a conference room listening to whiteboard presentations from a series of executives, one of whom was a woman. I described her as all business, but also as very attractive and wearing a suit or blouse that showed off her figure in some way — a low-cut shirt or a tight skirt. Then I asked each man I interviewed, “If you were in Doug’s place, what would be going through your mind as the female executive made her presentation?” I was stunned to hear the men’s responses:
“Great body… Stop it! What am I thinking?”
“I feel an instant tightening in my gut.”
“I’ll bet she’s using those curves to sell this deal.”
“Look at her face, look at her face, look at her face…”
“I wonder what’s under that nice suit? Stop it. Concentrate on the presentation.”
I was a bit unnerved to hear those comments — and others — especially from happily married men who were respectful of women.
Since that time, I’ve heard similar reactions from thousands of men — realized that when it comes to the ways that talented women may unknowingly undermine men’s perception of them, this one is near the top of this list. Why? Because of the disproportionate impact it has on a man’s thoughts, and how drastically it affects the way the woman is perceived. And yet, in most instances, the woman has no idea what is really going on inside the minds of the men around her.
The hardwired reality
Each of us — men or women — probably have individual quirks of our biological wiring that we’d rather not have: temptations, frustrations, impulses, desires. There are facets of our nature that we would love to be able to just turn off at times.
The visual wiring men have presents a similar temptation that men say they often don’t want and wish they could turn off — especially in a business setting. Their visual nature is highly attuned to and predisposed to take in appealing images, including images of an appealing woman. And if that woman is dressing in a way that emphasizes her assets, that fact is not only noticed but often begins a train of thought that more men in business would rather not have.
But their visual nature isn’t something that can be turned off. They must work to ignore it. In talking to men, I found most were incredibly puzzled as to why the woman wouldn’t want to avoid the situation. Why, the men wonder, is a professional woman dressing in a way that is likely to cause men to be distracted and miss some of what she’s saying? And the answer, of course, is that most women have no intention of causing that sort of distraction, and don’t realize that they are doing so.
The male-female disconnect
To test the difference in men’s and women’s perceptions in this area, I asked men what they would think if they saw a woman dressing in a way that emphasized or showed off her figure in some way, such as a low-cut top or a tight skirt. Then I asked white collar women who said they sometimes dressed in that way what was actually going through their minds. Here are the starkly differing results. Seventy-six percent of the men felt the woman wanted the men around her to look at her body. Yet only twenty-three percent of the women actually felt that way. In other words, three out of four women said that was not what they were thinking at all!
In one interview I knew that the man worked alongside many women. When I asked him if he ever saw women do things to hold themselves back in the eyes of men, he paused, then gingerly said, “There is a mistake I’ve seen women make… how people perceive you is important in business, whether you’re a man or a woman. And certainly, first impressions are even more important. The immediate appearance of a person walking into a meeting or a business situation: How that person presents themselves is critical.”
“OK,” I responded.
“And women more than men have some subtle ways of maybe not looking as professional.”
“In what way?”
Looking uncomfortable, he gestured to his shirt.
“Like a woman’s shirt that is unbuttoned too low. Or is tight. You know what I’m saying? I think a woman in a business situation that is dressed simply and not trying to call attention to herself is received better. A guy can relax in that situation a little more than if … well, if the lady is trying to call attention to herself. And subconsciously, I’m sorry, but the message comes across. She’s looking for that attention. And it can be really distracting.”
Almost everyone in business wants to make a good impression, and most of us work hard at doing so. The problem isn’t that we don’t know that it is important. The problem is that we simply may not realize that the visual impression we are making is not the one we intend. Based on the seven nationally representative surveys I’ve commissioned over the years for my books, I can almost guarantee that the businesswoman who puts on a figure-framing crossover blouse under her suit isn’t “looking for attention” or trying to “send a message.” But that is how almost every man perceives it.
So what can women do about it?
Women in the workplace want to be taken seriously. My survey shows that few intend (or want) to create a visual dilemma that could hinder their effectiveness. Nonetheless, the simple reality is that some women are doing exactly that — and perhaps more than they realize.
Thankfully, the problem lends itself to a simple solution for the woman who decides to make a change based on this new knowledge. The visual distraction factor is triggered when a woman dresses in a way that overtly emphasizes or calls attention to her figure. And when she doesn’t dress that way, the distraction factor isn’t triggered.
In practice, however, we need to become a bit more educated and aware of what men see as “overtly calling attention to a good figure” or “revealing.” There is a clear disconnect between what many women feel is “OK” and what men feel is “OK.” Several times I have stood with a man I know at a busy pedestrian area, business district, or coffee shop and asked him to point out cases where he felt a woman’s male colleagues would have difficult time concentrating based on her choice of attire. I’ll bet that woman in question would have been surprised as well.
This disconnect was evident on the survey, as well. Just four percent and twenty-two percent of women, respectively, said they “frequently” or “sometimes” wore work outfits that emphasized their figure. But men seemed to think that the visual dilemma occurred a lot more often.
Among men who have female colleagues and who don’t have a strict workplace uniform, fifty-eight percent say they see a female associate dressing in a way they find as distracting at least once a week. Twelve percent said they see examples of that “every day, multiple times a day.” Most of the women in question undoubtedly intend merely to dress professionally and attractively and are not aware that their attire is perceived as visually distracting.
Looking at the specifics
In general, the men pointed out that the more young and attractive a woman is, the more likely this is to be an issue and therefore, the more cautious she may want to be.
Here is what one of the men said with regard to outfits that tend to trigger a response in men:
It’s all about curves, bare skin, and, frankly, the sight of whatever is supposed to be covered. That is what a man’s eyes will be drawn to. A tight outfit, a short skirt, a bra strap showing, low-cut pants in the back where you can see the top of whatever she is wearing underneath if she leans over a bit… any one of those things. And cleavage.
Breasts are always distracting. It is so frustrating when I see in the morning that my one female colleague is wearing a button-down shirt, because she regularly has those types of shirts unbuttoned one button too low, and where it gapes or she turns sideways you can see everything. And I try to avoid looking, but I cannot put my hand up and go like this [he put his hand up as if to block his view of her chest] when I am talking to her, so that is a really difficult thing.
And of course, I cannot tell her about her top. I think she trusts me, but no guy can ever talk about this with a woman. Unless she’s his sister or something.
Help other women understand this
When I interviewed one senior female partner at a major consulting firm, she told me that the men in her practice had asked her several times to address this issue with specific women. The men explained that these women frequently went on client calls dressed in ways the men felt would be counterproductive. The men didn’t feel that they could bring it up, but were anxious to correct the issue before it caused client problems. Yet the senior female partner was one of the top rainmakers for that practice. She was way too busy. Moreover, she told me she resented the fact that just because she was a woman, she was expected to “be a sort of babysitter to women who should know better.” Because she was so busy, and didn’t know how to address it in a non-offensive way, she never followed up.
I know from experience that making other women aware of this issue can be awkward. It helps if you get the other person’s permission in advance. For example, you might say, “I have something a bit awkward that I want to ask you about. But it’s something that you might find important because it could affect how you may be perceived. Would you mind if I raised it with you?”
One senior female executive I know is always getting (in her words) “stuck” with having this conversation with female colleagues because she’s one of the most senior women in the company, and no man feels able to raise the subject with the women in question. So the men go to my friend, and my friend has to raise it as part of her job.
When I asked her what approach she found to be the most effective, here’s what she said:
“It starts with ensuring you are respectful and discreet. You need to do it in such a way that no one else knows the conversation is happening. I have had to do this multiple times, and I basically ask the woman to come into my office, close the door, and say, “This is really awkward, but I have something I need to talk to you about. Let me just blurt this out, and we can clean it up later. I just have to address what you’re wearing, and want to walk you through why it probably isn’t the best choice for this work environment, or this meeting you’re preparing for. It’s both for your sake and the company’s reputation. I’m so sorry, but I just have to bring this up.”
“How do you explain the actual issue to the woman, though?” I ask. “If she’s confused, or doesn’t understand why this is an issue. Or if she’s offended?”
I ask her, “When you do this meeting, what do you want to be remembered for?” She will almost always say, “My presentation! I’ve got the stats, I’ve been working hard on this, and now it’s time to present it.”
I then say, “OK, so if you want to be remembered for the presentation, then you want to do everything you can to ensure that the presentation is the focal point, and do everything you can to minimize any possible distractions, right? So you put together a great PowerPoint, and you decide how to emphasize these two main points you want them to remember. But you also think ahead of time about avoiding distractions — you silence your cell phone, for example, or close the conference room door so people don’t get distracted by outside noise.
“We often don’t realize it, but it works basically the same way with what we’re wearing. If you want them to remember your presentation and not your feather hoop earrings, or your red stilettos, don’t wear them. And if you want them to remember your two main points and not your cleavage, then you should probably consider changing your top before the meeting.”
Sometimes I jokingly say, “You just happen to have a figure that I would kill for, so you may have to think more specifically about how to make it a non-issue, so the guys can concentrate on what you’re saying.”
A tool that might help
As an aid for any managers, workers, or HR departments who want to address this with their female employees or colleagues, I have created a tool that might help: a short presentation that you can find on TheMaleFactorBook.com. The presentation summarizes my findings, in particular the results of the video experiment showing the “distraction factor,” as a way of helping women understand how certain fashion choices may be perceived.