The year started off with a bang. Well bangs, actually. I'm not referring to ice quakes (which startled Torontonians during the recent deep freeze), but the fringe that rests on your forehead.
It seems that Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state who may run for president in 2016, is now sporting bangs – and that's big news. The Huffington Post declared 2014 "a strong hair year for Hillary." The headline in New York Magazine read: "Hillary Clinton Gets Bangs, Nation Rejoices."
The woman named the most admired by Americans for 12 years running, who travelled nearly a million miles as the country's top diplomat, makes headlines – for her hair.
But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. The hairstyles of prominent female leaders never fail to make the news. Last year, Michelle Obama's bangs generated a lot of attention, as did her decision to get rid of them. Even Margaret Thatcher posthumously made headlines last week when the British national archives released her appointment book, which showed 120 hair appointments in 1984, or about once every three days. As the prime minister, you'd think we could cut her some slack for her number of blowouts.
For years, the scrutiny paid to the appearances of female leaders would set me off, wishing that the masses would focus on brains over beauty, but I'm ready to drop the charade that looks don't count. They do. It pays to look good and the sooner we accept that appearances tell a story that effects our professional success, the less guilty we'll feel about being vain.
Several studies over the past few years have found that a "beauty premium" exists in the workplace, where physically attractive workers garner higher wages and are considered more employable.
Recently, a study out of the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that this beauty premium has an impact not only a CEO's compensation, but also influences the value of his or her company's shares. Using a "facial attractiveness index" based on facial geometry, the study by economists Joseph Halford and Scott Hsu found that attractive chief executives are associated with better stock returns around their first day on the job, and near merger and acquisition announcements.
So beauty pays off – although the emphasis on women's beauty remains a bit high for my liking. Last year, a Randstad survey conducted with Ipsos-Reid found that 90 per cent of the 500 female Canadian executives believed that image was a moderate or major factor in their professional advancement. These women felt that image wasn't nearly as important to men's success.
"We must emphasize at every stage in hiring, recruiting and training that … the intellectual value that we bring to the work we do is what holds its weight in the work world," said Tom Turpin, president of Randstad Canada.
"How you dress matters to a point; if you want to be an executive there is a need for a certain polish to a person. But, it isn't the most important part of it – it isn't even in the top 10," Mr. Turpin added.
Not everyone agrees that looks don't count, including David McKnight, founder of DAMstyle, an image consulting firm in New York.
"Professional presentation is critical and we must be constantly aware of the unspoken messages and personal brand that we are communicating to our audience," he explained.
"I think Americans have overreacted to Hillary's new hairstyle because it represents a change – something never seen on her before," he added. "Many people are also trying to read between the lines to see whether she is slowly transforming her image into a potential 2016 presidential candidate."
He called Ms. Clinton's new style a "welcome departure from some of the recent pulled-back pony tails … worn on several occasions during her tenure as secretary of state."
So how can women navigate the potential land mines of appearing attractive, polished and professional while still conveying a sense of competence and accomplishment?
Mr. McKnight said the biggest fashion faux pas that professional women commit stems from not understanding how to dress for their body type. Imitating styles found in magazines or on celebrities is also a risk.
"True professional style must be synchronized to your professional image goals and internal identity, rather than what you see on your favourite fashion blog," he said. "Once you define your image goals and embrace your unique identity, then it's time to curate a versatile wardrobe that is inclusive of items that communicate your desired messages to the world, appropriate for any situation or environment."
If this still sounds like too much work, then perhaps the easiest first step is a great haircut. If pundits read a White House run in Hillary's bangs, imagine what getting rid of your scrunchie can do for you.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org