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The long and short of projecting power as a petite working woman

Have you seen The Photo of actress Eva Longoria standing next to The Soup host Joel McHale? My first reaction was, "Wow! Eva Longoria looks so little!" Then I realized that she and I are about the same height. Oh, no.

At 6'4", McHale towers over 5'2"* Longoria. Sure, she's a bit hunched over in bare feet, and they do seem to be standing on a slight, grassy incline. The difference in height, however, is still rather startling, like she's his kid sister or a petite poodle. But as a rather diminutive lady myself, I say power to the little people. Flash that great smile of yours, Eva, and stand tall, my friend. Somebody call 9-1-1, because there's a shawty fire burning on the grass floor.

A petite woman, which I'll define as a woman 5'3" or shorter, usually knows from a fairly young age that she's never going to be among the tallest, strongest people in the room. Or at least, she's figured it out by the time puberty is winding down. She's less likely to be looked up to as possessing innate qualities of leadership, which would have given her at least a few decades to get used to assuming a leadership role. As it turns out, we petite women didn't choose the team so much as we were chosen for the team, and sometimes we were among the last people chosen, depending on the game. (I'm looking at you, volleyball and basketball.)

Adulthood still requires a chair or a stepladder to reach the top row of kitchen cabinets. Readjusting the rear-view mirrors and moving the driver's seat forward a few inches is standard practice. Total strangers call us "sweetie" on a regular basis, and some people aren't afraid to crash our 2-foot radius of personal space or to physically touch us, either. Like any petite woman, I have my share of stories to tell. I went to one non-business event where, as usual, I was the one of the most petite women (if not the most petite woman) in the room. As a taller woman (I'm guessing about 5'8") I was acquainted with walked past me, she stopped, smiled, grabbed my facial cheeks and proceeded to flap them quickly, which made me emit a sound akin to an excited squirrel finding the motherload of all walnut collections. Then she chuckled and walked on without saying a word.

She didn't do this to anyone else in the room. Perhaps she didn't dare? Stunned, I just stood there, vaguely embarrassed. What the hell was that? Was she asserting some sort of primitive, X-chromosomal dominance, or did she simply think I wouldn't mind this little "moment" between us? To this day I'm not sure why she did it, but in hindsight I don't think she meant ill by it. This incident represents the extreme, but for better and for worse such stories come along with being a member of the 5'3"-and-under club. When people perceive you as small, cute, delicate, approachable, waif-like and/or fragile, they tend not to fear you.

Being petite, however, does come with a few advantages. People are quicker to offer a helping hand with doors, groceries, and heavy boxes. They'll let down their guard faster (which comes in awfully handy as a reporter). Airline seats tend to have a lot of leg room. Petite women, for whatever reason, also seem to be very adept at snaring tall men, much to the apparent consternation of tall women. Just ask petite actress Hayden Panettiere, who really should write a book someday detailing her secrets to dating tall. Personally, I've grown (no pun intended) into my petiteness and it's not something I think about all that much these days. Until I saw The Photo, that is.

But looking like you always need help and are extremely date-able aren't typically attributes likely to propel a petite woman into a powerful C-suite role. Which brings me to the point of this post: How can you project authority and power as a petite working woman in a world where tall people get promoted faster, earn more money, and can walk into a room and instantly command a modicum of respect without having to say a word? Well, at least until someone asks if he or she plays basketball. (I know, I know, tall people: you really hate this question, don't you?)

Maybe it's not a shocker that many women who make it to the C-suite and higher echelons of government tend to be on the taller side. Current Hewlett-Packard CEO and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman is 6' tall. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO and former California U.S. Senate candidate (I'm definitely sensing a pattern here) Carly Fiorina is well over 5'7". IMF Chief Christine Lagarde is 6' tall, too. The list goes on.

Such heights put these female leaders squarely within range of a 2005 Fortune 500 survey that found the average height of the U.S. Fortune 500 CEO is at least 6'2", if not taller. One look at the pictorial of Fortune 500 female CEOs, and you can tell that these women probably don't need a stepladder to reach the highest cabinets. Just saying.

So how do you start projecting more authority and power as a petite woman in the workplace? Here are a few quick tips:

Project your voice. You might be waif-ish, but you don't have to sound like Tinkerbell. Learn to project your voice using vocal exercises to add more timbre to your tone. And no…uptalk? Okay? It makes you sound, like, uncertain of yourself? You get my drift.

Stand tall. No hunching or slouching. Good posture reflects confidence and strength. It will also help your vocal projection and make you look at least a ½-inch taller. Bonus.

Be a Mercury, not a Pluto. It can sometimes be intimidating to be the 5'2" lady huddling among more Amazonian women, but don't let yourself become Pluto circling their Saturns and suns. Pick your spot, and then take it. Acting like you belong without exhibiting some sort of Napoleon(a)'s complex is a big part of fitting in, no matter the group dynamics. Think of it this way: Mercury is a small planet, but it's the closet planet to that power source we call the sun, isn't it?

Know your stuff. What petite woman hasn't had the experience of offering her opinion among a group of people and felt like someone was thinking, "Awww look, short stuff has an opinion! How cuuuute! I guess I'll sort of pretend to listen"? The petite dynamo has to bring her A-game to work, all the time. This means knowing her stuff inside and out, and not being caught...short. Never let yourself look flatfooted in your platform shoes. Better yet, don't wear platform shoes. Wear flats to make a statement and to avoid breaking your neck.

Don't be helpless. There's an odd paradox in being petite. The petite woman can become conditioned to wait for help since others are always offering it. Waiting for help in the workplace, however, isn't going to lead you to a promotion. Sure, there will be times when you do need someone's help ("Would you mind getting that box that weighs more than I do down from the upper shelf?"), but are there times at work when you've been conditioned to allow co-workers to help you with tasks that you can more than handle all by yourself? Have you boxed yourself into a more narrowly-defined role because your co-workers, from Day One, seemed to perceive you as too small, cute, delicate, approachable, waif-like and/or fragile to handle certain tasks? Stepping up could shift perceptions of you.

Leadership doesn't have to be a tall order for the shorter woman. It can be done; you just have to stop selling yourself short. And remember, there are powerful petite women out there doing amazing things every day. The first one who comes to mind is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is a sprightly 4'10". Singer Shakira, actress Dame Judi Dench, news anchor Katie Couric, and tall-man-snaring Hayden Panettiere are all around 5'1". Actress and director Salma Hayek is 5'2". Drew Barrymore, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman top out the ceiling of la femme petite brigade around 5'3". So, power to the little women.

*Most heights contained in this article were found using Google's height estimator, give or take an inch.


  1. Short and petite - I was born that way. It is something you can not change, you just have to love it. It is like the color of your skin, you can be black or white and you can not change it, just love it. Rudeness and ignorance can be also be tall or short maybe they were born that way or maybe they evolve that way. Someday we can just say I am tall or I am short without thinking the other one is superior than the other, just a variation, and I think that is what make life so interesting!

    1. Hi! My name is Lande Yoosuf and I am an Associate Producer for The Steve Harvey tv show. I'm reaching out to you because we are currently seeking petite ladies for an opportunity this Friday, December 14th. We would like for them to participate in a dating segment with a short bachelor. We're looking for women nationwide.

      If this sounds like you or anyone you know, please contact me at 312-836-4835 or at AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Thanks so much!

  2. Petite can marry tall guys aswell.too...they are petite, not dwarf fool!!


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