Look under many a powerful woman's desk and you'll find a serious pair of heels. Whether they're on her feet or tucked in a drawer, the shoes' key attribute is a three-inch spike that, if redirected, could put your eye out.
A pair of black Richard Tyler pumps -- pointy-toed, matte leather, very skinny heels -- live under the desk of Dana Thayer, senior vice president of marketing for Chelsea Piers, a sports and entertainment complex in Manhattan. She pulls them out for important meetings. "They turn me into this different person," Ms. Thayer says.
Amy Swift, who runs a women's business incubator called Women Who Launch, opts for a pair of beige snakeskin Jimmy Choos that "have an all-business quality to them." She calls them "quiet but fierce."
Flats are this year's much-hyped shoe trend, with sales of comfy shoes shooting skyward, according to retailers such as Nordstrom and Zappos.com. But those friendly flats tend to disappear at key moments -- the biggest meetings, confrontations and transactions. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, 77% of women wear heels to special occasions, which probably explains why Zappos still sells more designer heels than flats, at a substantial ratio of 65-35.
"High heels indicate power," says Stuart Weitzman, designer of many a power heel. "For some reason, it's a natural instinct for human beings."
This is partly a factor of height. At 5'9½ in bare feet, a pair of heels leaves Kristin Bentz, who runs a fashion-investment blog, towering over many men in a room. "I totally use the shoes for the intimidation factor -- for women and for men," she says.
Yet, as much as I'd like to argue that this is all about the added height, I'm afraid it's not. High heels are sexy. They offer an inherent contradiction: They make us more fragile, but conquering them to stride alongside men in their sensible flats creates mystique.
In an elevator at Lehman Brothers, Ms. Bentz's former employer, a couple years ago, a senior executive stared at Ms. Bentz's chocolate-brown crocodile four-inch pointy-toe pumps and asked, "Where do the toes go?" she recalls with relish.
The empowerment of women in the office has actually opened the door for sexier looks, even in conservative offices like the insurance brokerage where Darla Brunner works in Los Angeles. High heels were once less acceptable because of their alluring connotations, says Ms. Brunner. They were a distraction. But "in this day and age when it is more accepted that females are capable in the business world, those same high heels now command more business respect," she says.
Even if sex is still power, it must be carefully constrained in the office. Step across the line to blatantly sexy, and you risk moving into the dumb zone, or worse. Hence, Christian Louboutin's red-soled heels, with their hint of bondage, are best left out of the monthly budget meeting.
There are certain places, like hospitals and construction sites, where heels simply can't be worn for reasons of comfort and safety -- and others where constraint is so important that heels rarely rise above two inches. Among these are the halls of government. In Washington D.C., our best-dressed secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, often chooses skinny-heeled but lower two-inch pumps. U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton's flats and chunky heels keep our minds on her intellect.
Still, feeling put-together as well as three inches taller can do wonders for the confidence -- if you can still walk. Dorothy Crenshaw donned multicolored suede Ferragamo pumps with three-inch heels to tackle an ornery automotive-company CEO who was firing her communications firm a few years back. Usually she's concerned about comfort. But that day, "I said, 'I'll be damned if I'm going to meet this man in flats or chunky heels," says Ms. Crenshaw, president of Stanton Crenshaw Communications in New York.
Mr. Weitzman, who concedes he has never worn the heels he designs, "except for a joke," says high-mindedly that no woman should have to suffer in a pair of heels. To help, he adds a 1½-millimeter-to-three-millimeter layer of latex to the inner sole of his shoes.
Still, it's still reasonably safe to say that those Stuart Weitzmans, Manolo Blahniks, Jimmy Choos, and even Cole Haan Nike Air heels have all contributed their share to the fact that 72% of women have had to stop wearing a shoe because of foot trouble, according to a study of high heels by the American Podiatric Medical Association.
"I'm in the deep trouble that I am with my feet because I wore Charles Jourdan heels all day because I thought I had to be chic," says Susan Dresner, a New York wardrobe consultant who has spent much of the past several months recovering from foot surgery. Nevertheless, she's still putting her clients -- most of whom are professional women -- in 2½-inch heels. She prefers an opera heel -- a Victorian-looking heel that's wider at the top and bottom but conveys a thin look with a cinched waist in the middle.
Just going from two-inch to three-inch heels puts seven times the pressure on the ball of the foot, says podiatrist Christian Robertozzi, who practices in Newton, N.J. Dr. Robertozzi appears to be immune to the magic of a power heel. "It throws out your back. Your butt's going one way and your stomach's going the other way," he says -- though what he describes is exactly what many men find appealing about the shoes.
Birkenstocks are Dr. Robertozzi's sort of shoe. "They're beautiful," he says. "We could all wear those."
But not when addressing the board of directors. For that sort of thing, says Caroline Nolan, a crisis communications lawyer who recently moved to Jerusalem from New York, "There is simply nothing that makes you feel better than walking out the door in a pair of very high heels."