The most powerful haircut in America

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The most powerful haircut in America
Make me look like a power lawyer," I ordered a hairstylist in a chic Manhattan salon, my steely demeanor clearly an attempt to hide my apprehension about making such a major change in my hairstyle. I had always loved my long hair, but I was in my twenties, fresh out of law school, and working at a firm with colleagues many years my senior. To get ahead, I assumed my halfway-down-my-back waves had to go; I needed to mirror the powerful women I saw around me-the ones with bobs that had side parts and the precise edges of a samurai sword. The effect of my short chop? Polished, blunt, and to the point. "Take me seriously!" it hollered.

Looking back almost 10 years later, was I being overly dramatic? Maybe. But I wasn't entirely misguided. That style remains the most powerful haircut in the United States. Of the 23 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 15 sport versions of it, including the curled-at-the-ends cut of HP's Meg Whitman, the layered, tucked-behind-the-ears interpretation of Avon's Sheri McCoy, and the stick-straight look of Yahoo's Marissa Mayer.

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But how can a haircut-this haircut-wield so much power? It turns out there are scientific reasons behind the trend. According to a study published in The Journal of Social Psychology, attractiveness is a strike against women up for "masculine" jobs, such as corporate managerial positions. The bob, says Wilson, is "somewhat of a masculine style" that strikes a balance that's neither too butch nor too silly. In a paper on hair and first impressions based on a study funded by Procter and Gamble, study director and Yale University psychology professor Marianne LaFrance, Ph.D., wrote, "Within seconds of meeting you, people begin forming a first impression about the type of person you are, and it's not your face that gives you away; it's your hairstyle." And according to the study, women with shorter hair are perceived as more intelligent and confident than those with longer styles.

"Fashion and hair are ways to express yourself or to get attention, but for many women who have a seat in the boardroom, that's not what they want to be noticed for," says Sophie Eden, who has been conducting executive searches for a decade and cofounded the London recruitment agency Gordon & Eden. "You're taking a chance with a different hairstyle."

Despite the bob's proven power in the boardroom, I've never really been that big of a fan of the style itself. (When I switched careers, I let my own blunt cut grow longer with soft, easy layers.) So it's with sweet relief that I'm sensing change afoot in other industries as well. For one, the new chief executive of General Motors, Mary Barra, wears a sweeter, slightly longer 'do with side-swept bangs. And even in more conservative centers, like inside the Beltway, in D.C., ladies have a more balanced relationship with their cans of hairspray. For example, "Michelle Obama's hair has a lot of movement, and if you look at Sarah Palin's hair, she has this bang and it's sexy," says Ted Gibson, a New York City stylist who counts celebrities like Lupita Nyong'o but also many high-powered CEOs as clients.

Gabriele Vigorelli, a stylist at Sharon Dorram on Manhattan's Upper East Side, agrees. He's the man behind Spanx founder Sara Blakely's bouncy feminine 'do, and he flat-out refuses to cut generic bobs for his clients. "Why box somebody in?" he says. Rather, he prefers an individual approach. "Basically we designed the haircut to what Sara was feeling," Vigorelli explains. "It's not long, long hair, but the length gives her versatility and playfulness and also the feeling of being sensual."

Looking back, I'm not sure going under the shears made much of a difference at the law firm. Certainly the partners couldn't have cared whether my hair was long, short, or like Rainbow Brite when it came to churning out contracts at 1 A.M. So although the power bob is still the clear chop of choice, I find it liberating to know it's not the only option. If it were today, perhaps my twenty-something lawyer self would have chosen the chop anyway, but it would have been for a look all my own. Gibson agrees: "It's the diversity in the way women can look that's really empowering."

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