23rd May 2016   |    by Jacqui Harper MBE

Women’s Workwear: how a Presence Audit can help with High Heel Headaches

Sending home a young woman who refused to wear high heels at the office of a top London accounting firm has created a remarkable reaction. Government ministers are frowning on the practice, the UK Parliament is considering a national debate and many international corporations are rushing to review policies regarding women’s workwear and heels in particular.

As companies update the rule books designed to uphold powerful corporate brands they might want to consider other tools for getting the support of staff and contractors: a personal presence audit.

High Heel Drama

Linking personal presence audits to employer values can powerfully align corporate brands and the personal brands of employees. This seems crucial for frontline staff like the woman at the centre of the high heel drama, Nicola Thorp.  At the very least encouraging staff to do a personal presence audit can draw attention to potential areas of conflict between how a woman wants to be seen in business and how an organisation wants her to be seen.

Probing Conversation

So what is a presence audit? It involves taking a deep look at how to express your best self in the workplace and has evolved from executive coaching and personal branding.  At the heart of the audit is an in-depth, honest and probing conversation with yourself about who you are and who you want to be. The answers help you create a presence statement.

The answers also provide an opportunity to compare and link your values to your employers’. Conflicts or alarm bells in this area should be noted and most certainly addressed. The next step is to scrutinise your presence – literally how you show up – and consider where you need to make adjustments.

Clients and Colleagues

There are two areas to review: personal presence and physical presence. Your personal presence focuses on the internal dialogue you have with yourself because this affects clients and colleagues around you. Do you have a lot of negative self-talk? What’s generating that?  What new habits can you start to shift into positive self-talk?


Physical presence is to do with body language as well as image and style. Interpreting your presence statement in terms of what you wear throws up challenges and choices. Deciding on flats or heels is partly a matter of personal preference and partly to do with body shape and lines.

Business Suit

For women like me who are just under average height and just over average build I would say that flat shoes don’t work terribly well with a business suit. I need the elongation of body line provided by extra inches of heel to create what headmistress Jenny Brown calls the final flourish. She lovingly describes heels as “beautiful in their tapering leanness, their sinuous arches and the magic physics of them”.

But she’s wrong to suggest that it has be high heels every time for every woman. Taller women with average builds can look spectacularly smart and professional in flat shoes. There are so many elegant, low heels and flats out there for women who want them.

We have Nicola Thorp to thank for making us take a fresh look at modern business wear for women and linking it to core values, personal presence and corporate branding.

© 2016  Jacqui Harper

Jacqui Harper

Jacqui Harper is the founder of Crystal Business Coaching.

She is a subject expert in leadership presence and personal branding.  

Jacqui teaches communication courses at INSEAD.  

She is the author of a business book on presentation skills

and previously anchored news programmes for BBC Television.

About Jacqui Harper MBE

Jacqui Harper MBE MA Hon Fellow

Jacqui is a visiting professor at INSEAD – the number one global business school (Financial Times, 2017) where she teaches Executive Presence to MBA students and executives.

As a TV news anchor Jacqui has presented several news programmes for BBC TV, Sky News and ITV and a chat show on BBC 2.
Her presenting experience gives her many practical insights and skills to share with business leaders needing high grade communication skills at conferences, board presentations, media interviews and stakeholder events.

Through her company, CRYSTAL BUSINESS COACHING, she has been transforming Executive Presentations for over fifteen years and her clients include many CEOs of global corporations and senior staff at The Foreign Office.

Jacqui has a passion for writing. It started as a business reporter for the Oakland Tribune in California. She has written a business book called The Professional’s Guide to Presentations. She is currently writing a new book on Executive Presence.

Jacqui is married to Peter, a lawyer, and they have two gorgeous kids who are at school. Jacqui’s free time is spent walking in The Yorkshire Dales.

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