“Is [your handbag] structured enough to indicate that you are a serious businesswoman?” – Mrs M

September 24, 2012

This weekend in the Financial Times, Mrs Moneypenny ruminated on her productivity in Singapore, as she was the closing speaker at the Deutsche Bank Women in Asian Business conference. In her own words:

At one point, I addressed the rather critical issue (for women) of handbags. What does your handbag say about you? Is it structured enough to indicate that you are a serious businesswoman? I might add that this was among a host of other tips for women wanting to get ahead, and took up less than two minutes of a 28-minute stint on the podium.

Mrs Moneypenny, real name Heather McGregor, often shares personal anecdotes in her column, but as a former investment banker with both an MBA and PhD in hand, she has much to offer women in the workplace. As a result, she has published three books, the latest of which was published earlier this year and is titled Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women.

So, while I am not criticising Mrs M for taking 100 seconds out of her talk to address handbags, it did catch my attention. Image comes up time and time again for women (just think of Hillary Clinton and the scrunchie incident), but Mrs M’s specificity to have a structured handbag caught me off-guard. Should we all buy new bags?

I am sure that some women reading this would vehemently say ‘no.’ They’d say that handbags are absolutely irrelevant to a woman’s performance, that it doesn’t matter what bag you carry. Bring some individuality to the table! Be proud and carry whatever handbag you want – the kookier the better! I’m sure they’re full of outrage that half of the city’s women has the Bayswater as it is.

Other women would say that image is the most important thing there is. First impressions are instantaneous, and you don’t get a second chance. 55% of the way others perceive you is based on how you look. In order to be respected as a confident businesswoman, you must look the part. You are not being a conformist automaton, you are smashing the glass ceiling. Go buy a new handbag now.

And then there are the women in between. These women have handbags, because it’s a necessity. They earn good money, they buy average bags that they like, and they intend to use them – structured or not. These women also care about their jobs. They work hard and they perform well. They’re not hugely concerned with the politics of it all. They just want to be recognised for the work that they do and be rewarded for it, while being themselves.

And that really brings us to the crux of the image problem. Authenticity. If you’re dressing in the way that the world tells you will get ahead, are you really being your authentic self? How do you reconcile who you are with a woman that will get the respect she deserves at work? Can you be a powerful businesswoman with an unstructured handbag?

Yes, of course you can. But it might be a bit harder if the bag you carry is bright orange with polka dots.

Think of your image as the opinion you have of yourself. Think of it as the opinion that you are trying to create in the minds of others. Do you truly see yourself as an orange-with-polka-dots woman? Does that really match the outfit that you’re wearing, or are you making a statement for the sake of it?

It’s not for me to tell you what kind of handbag to carry. But when I get dressed in the morning, I look in the mirror and think about what my outfit says about me. My current favourite work handbag is an Aspinal’s item in purple mock croc – a colour I adore. I think it says that I’m creative, I’m individual, I invest in quality products and I like a bit of colour. It’s not structured. Have I progressed as far as I’m going to go? Hell no!

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  1. Holly says: September 24, 2012

    I think that image is more of an issue for women because we have more options. We can wear a trouser suit, a skirt suit, or a dress. We have many colours to choose from. We carry a handbag, and probably a laptop bag as well.

    Men pretty much just have one option: suit and tie, usually in one of four neutral colours. And they don’t (usually) have a handbag, just a briefcase. So they have less to worry about when it comes to dressing professionally.

    I actually had to google “structured handbag” because I wasn’t 100% sure what it was, though my first guess was correct. I think that dressing professionally is less about the structure of your handbag, and more about how neat and presentable you look. Is your handbag years old, and fraying at the edges? Shoes scuffed? Clothing faded and worn? Not very professional.

    But if your handbag is neat, your shoes polished, and your clothing presentable, then you probably have nothing to worry about. Unless, of course, you’re completely off track in torn jeans and a faded cotton shirt.

  2. Lily says: September 24, 2012

    I actually googled ‘structured handbag’ as well – and similarly it was what I thought it was. Glad to hear I wasn’t the only one!

    I completely agree with your points, Holly. I think for most women it is a matter of being presentable and professional. But at the same time, I am really curious that Heather McGregor made this comment, because from reading her column for the past 7 years, seeing her speak in person and also catching her doing newspaper analysis on BBC News, she’s not exactly a high maintenance fashionista who follows trends blindly but far more a practical person who enjoys a few luxuries. It does make me wonder how the game changes for the very senior businesswoman. But at the end of the day, what difference could a structured handbag really make?


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