The 19th amendment, Sandra Day O'Connor, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — all great symbols of movement toward gender equality and female empowerment. But, to be a bit earnest for a minute, we think it's so important with every milestone to remember the support — the hard work, manpower, and research — that it took to accomplish each defining feat. At Marie Claire's Power of Presence luncheon on Wednesday, we were reminded of exactly that — and the inspiration that you find when you're sitting in a room with some of the most successful women in America.
From an Emmy-winning political journalist to superstar fashion bloggers, from CFDA designers to Goldman Sachs executives, about 250 strong, forward-thinking women — everyone short of Hillary Clinton and Sonia Sotomayor — gathered in New York City to rally for women in the workplace and to listen to a panel discussion featuring Olivia Wilde, CBS' Norah O’Donnell, The Weinstein Company's Meryl Poster, and designer Rachel Roy.
"I think that we, as women, don’t know our power until much later in life, and the sooner we can learn it, the better," Roy told Refinery29.
Sure, the event hosted some pretty hefty names, and, yes, Coco Rocha was stunning in a sheer, white blouse and deep-red lips, but the undisputed star of the day was the Executive Presence survey, which was conducted by think tank Center For Talent Innovation.
Cosponsored by Marie Claire, Gap, and Bloomberg, among others, the survey (which can be found in Marie Claire's November issue, out now) questioned 4,000 professionals about "executive presence," or the qualities needed to be a woman on top. According to the study, gravitas (confidence, integrity, and grit), communication, and appearance make up the three pillars of this sought-after executive presence. Not surprisingly, 67% of top-level executives believe gravitas matters most, where confidence is key, while an inflated ego and bullying behavior are considered blunders.
One seriously stylish proponent of the gravitas theory: Nina Garcia, who was just recently announced the new creative director of Marie Claire. "One thing we all took out of this is you got to stand your ground and you can’t compromise," Garcia tells us. "Your integrity is everything. For me, that was a really important point and one that I’ve lived in my own professional career. The biggest hardship," she adds, "is when people are competitive, when people are not nice. Again, find your sense of dignity and power, and carry on and don't let that negativity get to you, because that can distract you, disturb you, and that’s not you."
Should you let that negativity get you down, know you can always get back up, says one edgy designer of all things city-chic. "Be persistent. If you’re scared, pretend that you’re not," advises Rebecca Minkoff, who also told us her road to success involved a lot of "failing again and again…or thinking that I failed and figuring out how to do it better, becoming a professional student, and if I didn’t get something right, then figuring it out and constantly going back and making it work."
Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images/Amy Sussman
The most interesting tidbit of the survey revealed why exactly women struggle with owning their executive presence: "an intrinsic tension between conforming to corporate culture and remaining true to oneself." About a third of women surveyed felt they needed to compromise their authenticity to conform to company standards, and 41% of people of color felt the same. Unfortunately, this insecurity to be yourself may lead to missed opportunities.
"For me, personally, I don’t want to hire anyone that has to fit into any box," says Roy. "And if I sense that in an interview, I won’t hire them even if they are immensely talented because I want to work with people who come with new ideas, think outside the box, push boundaries."
Likewise, conforming to any standard may leave your talent unseen. For instance, Olivia Wilde not only banked on her beauty but her brains to make the right impression in Tinseltown. “What I found most in Hollywood, and being a woman in Hollywood, is about defying expectations, because everyone expects every actress to be stupid," she said to the panel. "So, it terms of learning the executive presence, it’s really about proving them wrong."
Contrary to popular belief, only 5% of top-level execs thought appearance was the most important aspect of having an executive presence. However, don't negate it as an essential factor, as first impressions matter and will detract from a woman's potential, if negative. In fact, a Harvard Medical School Study found that in the first quarter of a second, makeup positively affects initial judgement of attractiveness, competence, likeability, and trustworthiness.
Obviously, appearance matters in fashion, but also in old-boys'-club type of industries like journalism and politics. "I do think things are changing in terms of appearance where you can be more feminine and be taken fairly seriously in that regard," says O’Donnell, Chief White House Correspondent for CBS News and cohost of CBS This Morning. Two surprising trendsetters changing up the fashion game for working women everywhere? "Fox News channel pushed the edge in terms of the way to dress on the air and wear sleeveless clothing and shorter skirts. And then, Michelle Obama, our first lady, who is at formal events with sleeveless dresses, has really transformed and made it more acceptable to look more feminine and more stylish on television," explains O'Donnell.
"I do think that when you’re dressed a certain way, it can make you remember what’s beautiful about life," adds Roy, who admits her favorite clients to dress thus far include the first lady, Oprah, and Diane Sawyer — women with no problems tapping their executive presence.
With a record number of women holding seats in the Senate and women's rights at the forefront of the political discussion, this Wednesday's luncheon may have paled in comparison to the achievements made in the name of our XX-chromosome sisters. However, there, on the 44th floor of the Hearst tower, with wall-to-wall views of the expansive NYC skyline below, we saw the sheer power, energy, and enthusiasm shared amongst these industry leaders, and it was a sight to behold. In its most basic and telling form, it showed how professional women — of any background — can band together to make progress today, and more importantly, for the future.
"The women in the work force has increased exponentially," says Garcia. "And I think if there’s a country that can really demonstrate that we can do it all — we can have a family, we can work — it's this one."
Photos: Courtesy of Center for Talent Innovation