Appearances That Deceive

Does the way you look matter when it comes to leadership? David Bolchover argues that similar looking CEOs reflects sameness in thinking.
David Bolchover
Sep 05, 2017

The proportion of women chief executives (CEOs) among the largest companies is very similar in the United Kingdom and the United States. Just five percent of CEOs at FTSE 100 companies, and 6.4 percent at Fortune 500 companies, are female. But it’s not just women who are disadvantaged. Ethnic minorities also suffer similarly low representation in the corridors of corporate power, as do short, ugly men with high-pitched voices.

In research for his 2005 book, “Blink”, Malcolm Gladwell found that 30% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies were 6 feet 2 inches or taller, though they comprised less than 4% of the American male population. Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of Economics at the University of London, found that attractive people will on average earn 3-4% more than their less-blessed colleagues. And a 2013 study by Duke University and the University of California at San Diego showed that the deeper the voice of the 792 male CEOs surveyed, the more they earned. Presumably, the male falsettos among the workforce are failing to make the boardroom at all.

There are two ways to spin these statistics. Many economists claim that there are rational market-based explanations for such discrepancies. Others argue that this is the inevitable result of a modern-day knowledge economy in which objective measurement of individual performance is almost impossible. Either way, presenting the right image is the essential prerequisite for career success.

According to the market-based rationale, women are at a disadvantage in the workplace because they take crucial years out of their careers to raise children. When they return to work, and with young offspring still at home, they might not want to put in the necessary time to reach the top.

Voices of authority?

Those who believe that the corporate world, especially at senior levels, works according to strictly meritocratic principles might also add that tall, attractive or perhaps deep-voiced men are more likely to make better executives. Supposedly, employees and investors are more inclined to take notice when a tall male speaks—especially in a deep voice.

Although difficult to dismiss out of hand, these arguments contain significant weaknesses. The notion that women in their 30s and 40s are all running around after children is at the very least outdated. According to the Office for National Statistics, one in five women in the United Kingdom remains childless, with no need for a career break, while almost half of families (47 percent) have only one child. In her book “Lean In”, Sheryl Sandberg quotes a survey stating that “43% of highly qualified women (in the United States) with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time.” Which means that 57% don’t. In other words, when it comes to female under- representation in the boardroom, the ‘career break’ argument is somewhat unconvincing.

‘Diversity in the boardroom is a strong indication to investors and potential employees that the company is a cut above the rest.’

Are tall men with deep voices really going to make better decisions, or devise superior strategies? That they predominate in senior roles suggests that talent is not the major determinant of career success in many large corporates. More likely, they are promoted because it is extremely difficult to distinguish among the many people who could do the job perfectly well. Unconsciously perhaps, the recruiting committee selects the person with who looks most like a leader, along with the essential mannerisms and tone of voice.

The selected leaders in large companies reflect the sameness of their employers. On the other hand, if a company really has something different to shout about, then surely you are more likely to appoint the leader who can articulate this with the greatest enthusiasm and precision. That’s when women, short men and ethnic minorities get a fairer crack of the whip.

Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Jeff Bezos are around 5 foot 8 inches tall. Indeed, the great entrepreneurs come in all shapes, sizes and creeds. Diversity in the boardroom should not just be celebrated for its own sake, or as is often suggested, because a diverse customer base might be better served. It’s also a strong indication to investors and potential employees that the company is a cut above the rest.

David Bolchover

Writer on management and the workplace. Author of three business books.