What Does It Mean to Wear Heels?

Today in shoesplaining: Until your career is at its height, ladies, maybe you should stick to flats.

It went like this. At a reverse-demo event in New York last night, Jorge Cortell, the CEO of the healthcare startup Kanteron Systems, noticed a female attendee wearing shoes. He snapped a picture of the shoes. He then tweeted the picture of the shoes. This is what he said

Event supposed to be for entrepreneurs, VCs, but these heels (I've seen several like this)... WTF? #brainsnotrequired pic.twitter.com/Z1vBKxlLzo

Sexist! the people cried. No, it's not! Cortell responded. His #brainsnotrequired musings were merely protective, he explained, of the health of the shoe-wearer. And, by extension, of the health of us all. Heels are dangerous. Heels are dumb. High-heeled shoes are not, as it were, "sensible shoes."

But, of course, shoes are not merely shoes. Shoes, like any other clothing choice one must make every day, reveal something—inconveniently, maybe, but inevitably—about the wearer. Chuck Taylors say something. Sambas say something. Adidas shower shoes say something. And, yes, stilettos say something. 

The question is what they say. What Cortell was suggesting with his off-handed "WTF?" comment (and with the #brainsnotrequired tag that accompanied it) is that the stiletto-wearer he creep-shotted was putting superficial concerns—appearance, attractiveness, style—over matters of a more pressing variety. (Comfort, perhaps? The ability to run a 10k at a moment's notice?) His tweet was suggesting, essentially, an inversely proportional relationship between depth of intelligence and height of heel. It was suggesting, as well, that the footwearer in question was somehow attempting to game a system based on meritocracy using something else: femininity. 

Heels, essentially, are cheating. Heels, essentially, are wrong. 

We can debate at another time whether heels are, indeed, the high-fructose scourge of the shoe world. The issue here is their place at a tech demo—an event that finds participants rewarded, ostensibly, on the strength of their ideas and execution, rather than their style. Heels, of course, are more fraught than their fellow-shoes because they're gendered in a way that the others aren't. Stilettos are Lady Shoes. And, as such, they carry, along with an actual lady, the baggage of hundreds of years of freighted femininity. It's easy to see them and all their contradictions—bold and teetering, leg-lengthening and stride-impairing, empowering and constraining—as representative of the precarious path walked by many women in tech.

In the Valley, as the AP noted earlier this month"women who rise to the top tend to be judged more, both by men and other women, and in order to succeed they do have to dress better." And the women in the echelons of the industry, certainly, have their heels and wear them, too. Marissa Mayer, whose love of high fashion has become a significant aspect of her public persona, posed for a Vogue profile wearing statement stilettos. Sheryl Sandberg's Time cover co-starred her heels. Some women in the Valley, Claire Cain Miller wrote in the Times last year, "worry that they will not be considered serious technologists if they care about clothes." But "many are confident enough to dress the way they want to."

And yet—here is the catch of it—the sartorial statutes of the tech industry at large assume the opposite: that to dress well is, indeed, to be hiding something. To pay obvious attention to one's own appearance is to protest too much. Mark Zuckerberg wears hoodies because he can, but also because they remind all who behold him that he has better things to think about than his clothes. Steve Jobs did the same with his black mock-turtlenecks. (Though it's worth noting that the Apple founder's symbols of sartorial laissez-faire were designed by Issey Miyake.) As Lizzie Widdicombe wrote in a recent New Yorker profile of Brian Golberg, the aspiring entrepreneur "tends to wear baggy polo shirts, purchased in San Francisco, where, as he puts it, 'the schlubbier you are, the more credibility you have.'" 

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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