Olivia Wilde Talks Awkward Gender Stereotypes At Marie Claire “Power Of Presence” Event
9:30 am, November 15th | by Laura Donovan
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” star Olivia Wilde seems pretty confident professionally and personally, but the 28-year-old wasn’t always sure of herself in working environments. Even early on, she knew that one seemingly innocuous move could change the course of her career forever — and also that work invites many lose-lose situations and traps.
While serving as a “terrible” assistant fresh out of school, she sported a cashmere turtleneck to work after witnessing an aspiring performer lose an opportunity for donning an itty bitty outfit to an audition. Of course, the bulky, shapeless top wasn’t the right choice either, Wilde told a crowd of around 250 carefully selected women at Marie Claire magazine’s “The Power of Presence” event. That’s why, the A-lister said, it can be tough to know exactly how to approach the workplace as a female.
“I remember an actress coming by in too short a dress, and after she left, the [casting director] said, ‘I didn’t hear a word she said in her audition. Why was she wearing that dress? She’s a joke. I don’t want her in here ever again.’ This girl was never heard from again in our office, so I learned from that. A few days later, I was going to an audition wearing a very thick cashmere turtleneck and pants, thinking I looked very executive,” Wilde said to a laughing audience on the top floor of the Hearst Tower. “And [the casting director] saw me walking out the door and said, ‘Olivia, what are you wearing? You can’t wear that. You have to wear something tight and sexy.’ And I was so confused because I learned this lesson that this actress wore a short skirt and now her career is over.”
Wilde’s casting director advised the budding actress to figure out when to use her sexuality to her advantage. Wilde was set to meet with a male executive, who would likely be receptive to a flattering ensemble, but how do you know when you’re crossing the line? Wilde’s head was spinning with questions.
“That was my first kind of dump into the world of Hollywood, it kind of gives you an idea of this contradiction that exists,” Wilde said. “Know your audience and never wear big thick cashmere shirts. That’s the real lesson.”
Guilty! Wilde, of course, isn’t the first successful public figure to have encountered an awkward work moment primarily applicable to females. CBS News Chief White House Correspondent, Norah O’Donnell explained during the Marie Claire panel that she began her journalism career wearing large clothing to draw no attention to her gender. The need to hide oneself, she said, seems to have faded since her beginning years as a journalist.
“I would show up everyday in a long pantsuit…a pair of pearls trying to be as serious as possible so that no one would say anything about my clothing, that they would just concentrate on my reporting but there’s a sense of change happening recently…now women on television can wear sleeveless dresses,” O’Donnell said, adding that women these days can be “more feminine” and still be taken seriously.
That wasn’t the only career uncertainty O’Donnell has had, though. While she was covering the 2008 DNC, she came face to face with an unusual problem when she needed to ship her breast milk to her new baby at home. Though swamped with coverage duties at the massive event, O’Donnell asked a 17-year-old page to send the milk to her family and everything was taken care of. Approaching someone with such a request was tough, though.
“I had such a fear about asking someone to do something like that,” O’Donnell said.
“I feel like everyone is talking about overcoming fear,” Wilde chimed in, stating that she’d once been afraid to say no to an acting gig but declined it anyway because she disagreed with the values of the people behind the project:
“It’s just about knowing that it was going to be an uncomfortable situation that would be worth [saying no to] in the end. In mine, it was turning down a film that many people thought I was absolutely insane to turn down, but because I didn’t feel the directors had integrity and I didn’t respect them or the way that they were behaving. It’s that moment of knowing your personal sense of integrity is more important [and] that the lasting effect of that will be much better than whatever the glory is in the moment.”
Also at the catered event, which provided each attendee with a giant “Ready for Anything Kit”/suitcase full of goodies (including an Ann Taylor scarf, hand sanitizer, Sephora Collection Outrageous Mascara, a tube of OPI nail polish, Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Skin Therapy Oil, and more), also hosted fashion designer Rachel Roy, who told The Jane Dough that she loved the gathering.
“Anytime women get together, recognize their power, and brainstorm ideas, I love to be part of that and I love to see that happening, and I don’t think we recognize our power,” Roy said, adding that one of her next goals is to elevate less fortunate women professionally:
“Now that I’ve lived a little bit of life, I love what I’m doing…but I want to be able to provide more jobs for women that have children in third world countries and are unable to work, because essentially if you can’t work, you’re a slave. With what I do, what can I do to provide jobs. I can’t do beyond what I don’t know, but what I’ve learned at 38 is that there’s one thing that everyone is extraordinary at…I know my one thing, so if I can help other people do that one thing, then I will start to be scratching the surface of what my destiny is.”
Roy got into fashion at a young age. When she hit 14, her parents said she needed to begin contributing to the household, so she started working at a store and has “never left” the industry. Her favorite thing she’s done so far is learn that she can teach and help others:
“I only want to know people and have people in my life who care about something and then act upon that.”
Before the panelists spoke and sat down for individual chats with reporters, Center for Talent Innovation founder and economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett presented the Executive Presence research, which was sponsored by Bloomberg, Credit Suisse, Marie Claire, Goldman Sachs, and many other companies. Unsurprisingly, the findings revealed that appearance is crucial in a job setting and that even so much as a bad pair of tights could hurt a woman’s chances of landing the position she wants or getting ahead.
“Women, particularly if they’re younger, feel bewildered about what to do to progress,” Hewlett said. “Men can get away with being shlumpy [in the tech-heavy Silicon Valley], but women cannot.”