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View from the top Does height help businesswomen? Experts offer their take

Linda Wellbrock has all the attributes needed to run the Leading Women Entrepreneurs Program.
She is well-spoken, well-educated and well-versed in the ins and outs of nearly every business situation.
She’s also just a hair under 6 feet tall.
Without shoes.

There haven’t been any landmark reports indicating how much height helps a woman’s drive to the top of the business world in New Jersey, but an unofficial NJBIZ survey of female leaders around the state can come to only one conclusion: Height certainly helps.

Just ask them. We did.

RELATED: Consultant Sally Glick looks at height from the other perspective

“When I was younger, I used to wish I wasn’t so tall,” Wellbrock said. “But then I began to realize how my height gave me the ability to command a room. I had an obvious presence.”

That presence is felt in every industry.

From banking (PNC Bank New Jersey head Linda Bowden) to government (Economic Development Authority CEO Michele Brown) to higher education (Rutgers University Athletic Director Julie Hermann), tall women are having a big impact.

And then there are those dominating in fields almost exclusive to men: Cheryl Biron is the CEO of a company in the shipping industry, One Horn Transportation, while Kim Brennan runs the New Jersey office of commercial real estate services giant Cushman & Wakefield.

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Biron, who got her start in the financial industry, learned from a young age that her height was going to be a differentiator in business.

“When I was 19 working for Merrill Lynch, people thought I was older,” she said. “My height helped give me a stronger impression and I got treated with more respect.”

Brennan also knew that at some point, she’d have to start speaking up — since everyone was looking at her anyway.

“People notice you no matter what you do when you’re tall, so you may as well take advantage,” she said.

These women — all of whom stand taller than the average 5-foot-10-inch man before any help from a heel — say their height is something to be thankful for in this season of reflection.

But they also will tell you one other thing: Life at the top, so to speak, has not always been easy.

         

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average height for a woman is 5 feet 4 inches.

And people who deviate too greatly from the norm can run into issues.

So says Deborah Carr, the 5-foot-6-inch chair of sociology at Rutgers University.

“If a woman is tall to the point that that’s all that people notice, her height may detract from her mission,” Carr said. “If you’re far more physically attractive or tall or whatever beyond the norm, that trait may trump your ideas.”

No matter how smart or creative you may be, you are labeled the “the tall person.” And that’s not easy — especially for a young girl.

“You encounter a lot of obstacles being tall when you are younger,” said the 6-foot-1-inch Brennan. “You find ways to shrink and slouch to become invisible.”

The 5-foot-11-inch Wellbrock agreed.

“My entire family is tall, so I was comfortable in a ‘tall’ environment,” she said. “But I was definitely not the most popular kid by any means — considering I was the same height as my kindergarten teacher.”

These testimonials refute most sociological studies that suggest being a tall youth is advantageous.

“If they were tall when they were younger, it may have conferred a sign of maturity, respectability and accomplishment,” Carr said. “It may have brought benefits via athleticism, which could have helped them develop confidence to use in the workforce later on.”

But because of her height, Kitsy Dixon — a 6-foot assistant professor of sociology at Centenary College in Hackettstown — didn’t get much choice in her childhood experiences.

“My height dictated which activities I was in — instead of putting me in dance class, my family put me on the basketball team,” Dixon said. “And instead of playing the drums, my arms were so long that they gave me a trombone.”

These obstacles, however, may have helped build the confidence that eventually helped these women achieve success in their fields.

“Having been so tall so early, I had to develop confidence and not let things bother me,” Brennan said. “It’s now easier for me to make my way around the commercial real estate industry that is 90 percent men — it might have been different if I had been petite.”

Brennan’s right about that — since being shorter is a trait often associated with femininity.

Carr said this social component of height cannot be understated.

“Height conveys strength, power and — I don’t like saying this, but — masculinity,” she said.

“And people are still more comfortable with male bosses than female bosses. Tall women may sometimes gather more attention and respect because (their height) may be more in compliance with that male model of authority.”

         

For all the talk about height (or gender or diversity or whatever category you choose), many in the business world will tell you only one thing matters: the bottom line.

The good news for women who stand out in a room is that their paychecks tend to stand out, too.

A 2004 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that for every inch of height — regardless of gender — a tall employee could expect to earn an extra $789 per year.

That means for someone that is 6 inches taller than an equally skilled co-worker, that person would earn nearly $4,750 more just for his or her height.

Oh, and height apparently equals happiness, too.

A 2009 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that both men and women who were above average height — 5 feet 10 inches for males, 5 feet 4 inches for females — reported higher levels of happiness than shorter people.

It’s enough to make this 5-foot reporter bristle, but it’s the reality: Height is a leadership trait.

“People’s perceptions of tall people are more positive, for whatever reason,” the 6-foot Biron said. “A lot of presidents and CEOs have been taller than average, I believe — both men and women.”

Biron knows her stuff.

Malcolm Gladwell famously interviewed Fortune 500 companies in his book “Blink” to discover that male CEOs were 3 inches taller than the average male.

And there appears to be truth to Carr’s suggestion that people tend to treat women with height more as leaders and those shorter more as nurturers.

“My height has helped me become comfortable with leadership,” Biron said. “I’m on the board for the Entrepreneurs’ Organization now, and people look to me to be a leader — even when it’s not necessarily my role to be so.”

Biron also hopes to “overcome” the intimidation often associated with her height.

“I try to be very approachable because, in fact, I do have a very nurturing personality,” she said.

Wellbrock said she does, too, and she wishes more people would give her a chance to show it. She believes her height has led others to completely avoid confrontation with her altogether.

When putting together events with a (shorter) former partner, Wellbrock recalls having had seamless experiences.

“Whether it was my height or personality, no one ever came to me with a problem — they always went to her,” she said. “Could it have been the height? Maybe. Maybe it was that I was so tall and people didn’t want to approach me with issues.”

Some men, it turns out, may not want to approach them at all.

“I once shared an office with a man who was closer to 5 feet tall,” Dixon said. “He couldn’t handle it — he ended up moving out.”

If one thing is clear, though, it’s that tall women feel they must stand tall together.

“We have to own it,” Biron said. “It projects confidence and a stronger executive presence.”

Dixon agreed.

“Being tall is something that comes up every day in my life,” she said. “So when I see other women who are tall, I just have to stop and give them a high five.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

Meg Fry

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