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Keeping up Appearances: What Should a Woman in Leadership Look Like?

23/09/2013 11:17 BST | Updated 20/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Even if you are a brain surgeon "you're allowed to be interested in your appearance," said UK Vogue's Alexandra Shulman recently.

Yet the more a woman advances in her career, the more of a minefield her image seems to become. Australian politician Julia Gillard wasn't glossy enough, while critics Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer was too sleek: "We fight so hard to be where we are and prove that it wasn't our cute bodies, perky boobs or cute face that got us there... Shame on you Marissa Mayer for playing into stereotypes."

Not everyone feels this way. But many seem conflicted about questions of image and appearance. A recent survey found that one in four women still believes they need to dress in a masculine way (trouser suits, lower heels) to be taken as seriously as male peers.

Many of us put on a 'face' -- partly through dress -- to make us feel part of something, because it can help compensate for a slight lack of confidence. We may simply enjoy looking good (for ourselves). But being able to occupy the presence you put out in the world still seems to be a challenge for quite a few women -- or their peers.

I was once brought in to 'tone down' the image of a very senior female executive in financial services (a job I turned down). Her appearance was deemed inappropriate -- perhaps her sharp dress intimidated her male colleagues (something architect Zaha Hadid considers a compliment).

Yes, her skirt was a bit shorter than I'd have worn, her heels slightly high (in my view). But I wonder whether I'd have received the same request for a male executive. I don't think so.

For a former banker and economist I know, it was her youthful looks that worked against her. Although qualified and smartly turned out, she apparently looked 'too young' to be in banking - and lost out on job opportunities because she didn't look 'serious enough.' No wonder women feel they have to alter their image as they gain in power.

Women can be pretty damning of each other, too. We talk about supporting each other, yet my experience is that well groomed women often put other women's backs up. Men come from a more level playing field in this regard. (Though they don't have it so very differently when it comes to being judged on their looks: remember Labour party leader Michael Foot?)

A female MD once asked me to pep up the image of one of her senior partners. Perfectly successful at her job, she had a somewhat mousy appearance and apparently didn't 'look the part'.

But during a conversation it quickly became clear she didn't want to change her image. She was comfortable with it, and it wasn't harming her work, so I didn't pursue it. Maybe it worked against her; perhaps she had to work twice as hard to attract attention away from more colourful rivals. But I don't believe in editing someone's look if it is aligned with their values and personality.

Of course appearance matters. It's "the first filter", says Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Polls and studies regularly remind us of the importance of 'non-verbal communication', or how looks can determine everything from our earning power to our powers of persuasion.

But these outward signals are often a reflection of what's going on inside. If you're not looking right (in your own view), your body, internal monologue and external language will probably reflect that. I have to feel comfortable and professional in my appearance: then I'm at a level base to do other things.

I think women (and men) need to find a 'signature' look -- the late Steve Jobs's black turtlenecks, Angela Merkel's coloured jackets, the flower in Aung San Suu Kyi's hair.

Really think about it -- what suits your personality? When you're self-aware, you know what suits you best, but also how your image is being judged by others. Standing out, as opposed to jarring, is often linked to having a point of view. It's about understanding who you are and allowing your appearance to mirror the way you think.

In any dance of conflict or negotiation, I would say dressing is part of the modulation. There will be times when it's fine to turn up in shocking pink, others when it's absolutely not. You need to know when to 'up the ante' or take it down. And you may need to be pragmatic. We live in the real world. It's not always realistic to take the 'this is me; take me or leave me' attitude, however appealing.

So fit how you like to feel, but determine what's appropriate to the situation and find a way to translate that into your 'look'. Make sure you're happy with it and that it's really your signature. Then you can get on with conquering the world.