St. Louis Business Journal Defines Women By Their Shoes, Predictable Backlash Ensues


In recent days, the St. Louis Business Journal has been getting more attention on social media than it's gotten in eons — and it's come, predictably, because the newspaper pissed off a whole lot of people.

The venerable business weekly tucks a lot of good content behind its paywall, but a recent photo gallery that has women across St. Louis spitting mad is out there for all to see.

The gallery was part of a package profiling the city's 25 "Most Influential Business Women." Excellent idea. But then things got bizarre.

The photos depicted 24 of the women holding "the shoe that best describes them."

Let that sink in for a moment. 

Professional women. And shoes.

Because there's nothing that defines us working women like our favorite pair of Jimmy Choos, right?

Women blasted the paper on its Facebook page (as well as on their own Facebook pages) and on Twitter — where #ShoeGate engendered a lot of snickering yesterday.

The author of the story didn't respond to my message seeking comment yesterday. But commenters had plenty to say.

"They should have just gone with 'kitchen appliance that best describes them' instead," sniffed one Business Journal reader on Facebook.

Wrote another in a public post, "You feature St. Louis' most influential business women and you have them pose with SHOES? I'm not a big feminist, but I find that offensive. Why trivialize their accomplishments like this? Would you do this to men? Of course not. You owe business women throughout St. Louis an apology."

The fact is, it's not easy being a woman in a powerful position. Spare me your eye rolls — I know, I know, it's so hard to have an interesting job where you earn decent money! But I'm not talking about the "powerful position" part so much as the "being a woman" part.

That famous line about doing it backward, and in heels? That's basically what it's like trying to elbow your way through a man's world when you're not one. You're supposed to be tough, and smart, but you're also somehow supposed to be nice, and likable. These qualities do not easily go hand in hand.

And, yeah, you're doing it in heels. Literally. Just try to be a woman who wears clogs to work and see how close you get to the executive suite. In most industries, it's not happening. 

To be taken seriously by your (typically male) bosses, you generally have to be the sort of woman men are OK with — a nice normal type who is clean and well-dressed. But, here's where it gets tricky: You don't want to be too well-dressed, a show pony instead of a good old St. Louis clydesdale. It helps to be presentable, sure, but you also have to avoid being a woman they want to sleep with; trying to fend off that kind of advance — or, worse, succumbing to it — is a very quick way to complicate your career path.

Which brings us back to shoes.

Every morning my husband has four choices for footwear. Black or brown? Lace-up or loafers? Done. He's dressed. I doubt anyone could tell you much of anything about any pair he's worn all year.

But women? We're either wearing shoes that make us look frumpy or too serious, or we're wearing shoes that are wildly uncomfortable. And beyond discomfort, a good three-inch heel adds a layer of complication: You may be going for "serious badass"; some dudes in your office are surely reading that as "seriously horny." We seriously cannot win. 

In St. Louis, it's harder for women to win than anywhere else. A comprehensive study from Seattle-based PayScale last year found that, controlling for important factors like company size, industry and job title, St. Louis had a greater pay disparity between men and women than anywhere else in the country. Not something to laugh off — and further testament to just how bone-headed that Business Journal conceit was.

Indeed, looking at the women in the Business Journal gallery, I was most struck by how awkward the whole thing looked. Sure, the 24 women who participated (a 25th was "traveling," supposedly, and couldn't be photographed — lucky duck) were game about it. That was true even of the ones who'd apparently not brought an extra pair of shoes and posed barefoot, brandishing the ones they'd been wearing.

But come on! Do any of us really think these smart, accomplished women wanted to be standing there, defined by their footwear? The shoes are something they've undoubtedly thought way too much about already. 

Beyond that, a gallery like this is a wasted opportunity. 

As the (relatively) new girl in town, I realized I had a million questions for these women. I wanted to know how they'd found a mentor, how they balanced being a badass with living up to the world's expectations of nicety, how they negotiated that last raise. I didn't have a single question about their footwear. 

In his introduction to the project, Managing Editor Vince Brennan wrote, "We asked this year’s class of Most Influential Business Women to tell us about the pair of shoes that best describes them, and more importantly, why. While some in the newsroom initially balked at the idea, it turned out to be the perfect filter to show readers the best qualities of these 25 spectacular business women."

Vince, one editor to another: Next time, listen to the newsroom.

Update at 12:10 p.m.

Nearly a day after we first reached out for comment, we got a response from the Business Journal. In an email, publisher Patricia Miller demanded that we remove the photo we used to illustrate this post, writing, "The photos you are using are copyrighted material and were used without permission from the St. Louis Business Journal. We request that you remove them from your site immediately."  

However, we feel strongly that the law protects our right to show these photos to our readers. U.S. law gives the right to use copyrighted works in a limited, transformative purpose — and one of those express purposes is to comment upon or criticize. We have declined the Business Journal's request.

Sarah Fenske is the editor in chief of the Riverfront Times. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @sarahfenske.

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