Boxing gloves and heels

Office workers at Raffles Place during the lunch hour.
Office workers at Raffles Place during the lunch hour. PHOTO: ST FILE

What do women look like at work? From my desk in an open-plan office, I have a good view of eight. The oldest is fifty-something, the youngest about 25. Some appear to have spent a decent amount of time in front of the mirror before coming to work - others less so.

One has her hair in a messy ponytail and a cycling jacket on the back of her chair. A second is in astonishingly high heels and clad in black. A third (me) has grey showing on the roots of my hair and a smear of icing sugar on my leg. Some look as if they often go to the gym, others look as if they have never been in their lives. Two are eating. No one is smiling. Everyone is staring at their screens, faces blank.

There is nothing terribly mysterious or surprising about this. It is what professional women look like at work in a newspaper office in London in 2016. Why I make such a meal out of describing it is that even though people endlessly write and think and talk about women at work, I don't think I've ever seen a photo that captures what real working women actually look like, or what they get up to.

Last week, I finally got around to reading a McKinsey report, The Power Of Parity. In it, some of the finest brains in consultancy take on the topic of women in the labour force and reach the cheering - if implausible - conclusion that if only everyone would "prioritise action" in "the gender equality landscape", US$12 trillion (S$16 trillion) would be added to global growth.

The report is leavened by full-page photographs. One shows three sets of male legs in identical dark trousers and slightly infra-dig loafers. In the middle of the line is a pair of slender, bare female legs stuck into high-heeled power pumps. A second picture is a stock image of a working mother more luscious than a young Sophia Loren. She is holding a young child and, just to prove she has an important job, is wearing a jacket and serious glasses.

Over on the consultancy's website, there is a pretty young smiling woman with dark shiny hair, a plunging neckline and bare shoulders. "Don't just come to work. Come to change," says the headline. Change what, I wondered.

Maybe the photographic fiction that everyone in corporate life is young and luscious and insanely happy wouldn't matter if men and women were treated equally. Only they aren't. On the Goldman Sachs home page are seven male bankers and three female ones. Most of the men are senior people named and photographed as they work. By contrast, the young anonymous women are total babes. Flesh on display. Smiles winning.

A year ago, Ms Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer and author of Lean In, protested at the ludicrous stock images of working women found online. There was the woman in high heels climbing a ladder. The woman in business suit inexplicably wearing a pair of red boxing gloves. And a female manager in stilettos walking on the back of a male colleague.

To make things better, she got together with Getty Images and launched the Lean In Collection. Superficially, this is an improvement as there isn't a stiletto in sight, and best of all, some of the women are quite old. But in another way, her pictures are even more misleading. In the Lean In world, everyone is cool and beautiful. All still look unfeasibly happy, save one or two who have intense expressions, as if to convey that major acts of soulful creativity are going on within.

I look again at my colleagues. They still aren't smiling or looking soulful. They are working. If a company wants to show that it really values women and wants to prioritise action in the gender equality landscape, it will show pictures of them in which they don't always look cool or gorgeous. They just look like professional women at work.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Boxing gloves and heels'. Print Edition | Subscribe