Perfect Seven / Theory

Perfect Seven is a theory that to be successful as a woman in business, one must be a Seven out of Ten: attractive enough to be noticed, not so attractive as to intimidate or have one’s intelligence written off. After publishing the piece pseudonymously on Medium, Michelle dropped it in an interview and it became the cover story of The Saturday Times, spawning international attention, including conversations on Monocle Radio and with The Morning Show Australia.  A pending-publication version of the theory is pasted below.

Saturday Times:


PERFECT SEVEN: the unspoken key to success as a woman in business

Examine the successful woman in business: she is smart, ambitious, focused, skilled, courageous, decisive, feminine, empathic, emotionally intelligent, well-mannered, well-spoken, well-dressed, culturally sensitive, socially adept. She has worked hard, she has ceased opportunities, she has made sacrifices. She has taken feedback even when it is hard, she has set goals and found people to hold her accountable to them. She has sought out female mentors as well as male advocates. She has leaned in, and also know when to lean out, she has found ways to have it all in her own way. She has done so, so, so much to get where she is, acquiring wisdom along the way which she is, now, incredibly gracious to take time to share with the next generation so that they can succeed, too.

Oh yes, and one more thing: she’s a seven.

That’s a seven out of ten on an attractiveness scale: pretty enough to be noticed, not so pretty that her prettiness overshadows other traits.

When we talk about what it takes for women to succeed in the corporate world, we have a tendency to ignore one very big, unconscious elephant in the corner: attractiveness matters, and the women who make it, from the very start of their careers, are the ones who hover right around a perfect seven.

The case of the Three:

 When I was working in finance, I got an email from a student at my alma mater, asking for advice on how to land an internship in consulting or banking. We spoke on the phone and she told me about the rejections she’d gotten from several of the top tier institutions and I, too, was befuddled by them: she was articulate and knowledgeable about the role, and her resume checked all the GPA, leadership roles and sports participation boxes I knew were important to on-campus recruiting teams. So I suggested we meet to do a practice interview, and as I approached the coffee shop and saw her wave, I felt my throat tense and began praying that she had a terrible personality or didn’t know how to add or any other reasonable deficiency to warrant her unqualification that would eliminate the possibility that her rejections were because she wasn't at all pretty. She had none of these deficiencies - she was not the best I’d ever seen but she was far from the worst - and I wished her luck, passed her resume to someone in the department where she wanted to work, and held my breath. I got an email from her several months later, saying she’d been denied from all the big firms but found a decent role at a decent firm which I knew the industry well enough to know wasn’t exactly the shining entry that sets a young woman up for success. A few months later and I met an analyst who had gotten one of the spots she had applied to - a perfectly nice kid who didn’t really understand the interest rate swap he was talking about, but was very good-looking - and casually asked his boss if he remembered interviewing my girl. Oh yeah, he said. Super smart, but zero client-facing skills. I pressed what he meant by ‘client-facing skills.’ He said He didn’t care she wasn’t pretty, but couldn’t help that clients would.

The case of the Nine and a Half:

 I was at a dinner party with a lot of young professionals in New York, including two consultants who worked at a big name firm, who were flipping through the Instagram account of a girl they had interviewed that day for an entry level position. They showed me: she was undeniably gorgeous. I asked if they were nervous about working with her, given they were both single and clearly attracted. Oh we didn’t hire her, one guy said. I asked why not. Way too hot. None of us would have been able to get anything done with her around. I got it at first, then reconsider, prompting a conversation between us that considered the risks of having a really hot girl on staff: it set the firm up for sexual harassment lawsuits if clients or managers couldn’t control themselves and hit on her; it would surely provoke jealousy amongst the other women and mess up the cooperative team culture; it would be a waste of investment in training because she would probably get picked up and marry some wealthy big shot and leave the firm to have babies anyway. I asked whether they had explained all of this when they called to let her know she didn’t get the job. Nah, we just said it was a competitive year.

On Being Seven-ish:

 Both these anecdotes gave me a lot of pause. I thought about both girls, and how they felt when they got the calls telling them they hadn’t gotten the roles, imaging how they probably didn’t know any better than to assume the reasons given were true - namely, that they weren’t as qualified as other candidates - and how that might snowball into disbelief in themselves which, coupled with the extra fight that would be required by starting in less well-known firms, make it that much more difficult to get the career success they wanted.

And then I thought about my MBA class at Stanford Business School, from an attractiveness perspective. The men ran the gamut: there were some mediocre looking dudes and a downright Ken doll or two, but us girls were all pretty damn seven-ish. I forecasted this ahead to the business world at large and saw the same pattern: the corporate world is as comfortable making heroes of Mark Zuckerberg as Jamie Dimon, but seems to like to promote women who are right around Sheryl Sandberg.

I want to be super clear I’m not saying this is right, I’m saying it’s real.  I’m not proposing that we lobby firms to rank women by attractiveness so that they can be sure its not a factor in hiring decisions (Please, please , please no!) or that we accept it as the way things are and advise pretty girls to go into industries like fashion that don’t seem to mind and unattractive girls to go into non-client facing positions.

What I am proposing is that we become conscious of the bias. I think, like so many nuanced inequities in the workplace today, decisions made on attractiveness are unconscious and the solution is as simple as pointing it out so that we notice when it affects our decisions and think twice about why we are judging certain women in certain ways. As more people become aware, we can start to hold each other accountable and, over time, the knot will untangle itself so that when we encourage girls by telling them looks don’t matter we won’t be lying.