Brains and Beauty: Learning from Women Who Lead

By Juliette Rhinow ’25

Through the Eisenhower Institute’s Women and Leadership program, I had the opportunity to listen and learn from accomplished women leaders. Though each speaker contributed their knowledge from vastly different career areas and personal experiences, they all praised the value of authentic leadership. Women and Leadership tasked me with finding my hypothetical tie as a woman entering the professional world. The phrase “finding my tie” evolves from the hyper-gendered professional dress code that deems men professional once they lace up their tie—but what is a woman’s “tie?” 

Building a wardrobe is an additional challenge for women who have navigated the professional world. A double bind exists where women take a risk once they apply too much makeup, insert “distracting” earrings or wear a pantsuit that can undermine their qualifications. Yet societal beauty standards are expected to be simultaneously upheld, including the expectation to put on makeup, wear clothes that accentuate just enough and to hide signs of aging such as gray hair. This “beauty expectation gap” forces women to spend more time and money ensuring that their appearance is just right—but right for who? It seems that it’s not for women. Unrealistic beauty standards enforced on women are rooted in the idea of male validation, which is why many women have stopped living by societal standards. However, many women who abide by these norms are doing it for themselves.

In the 1950s, “pin-up girl” standards were strong—prominent figures include Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. Women actresses and models were admired almost entirely for their looks. Today, if you search the web for women leaders from the 1950s, almost all results are models. It was not until I landed upon Hedy Lamarr, who did what all women today are expected to do; upholding the ideal societal image physically, domestically and maternally while working hard towards her career goals. Hedy Lamarr was called “The Most Beautiful Woman in Film” throughout her acting career. While often recognized for her beauty and marriage, most are not aware of her scientific career. Between filmings, Lamaar was busy inventing technology that was later used to create Bluetooth, GPS and WIFI.  She patented the secret communication system also known as frequency hopping. Her ideas were rejected by the United States Navy, but they were later used for the advancement of naval technology; during the Cuban Missile Crisis, all U.S. Navy ships participating in the blockade of Cuba were equipped with frequency hopping systems. Lamaar received no compensation for her contributions despite her patent. She had even intentionally used her married name to increase her perceived credibility. 

Hedy Lamaar’s story represents the realities women have faced for centuries but Lamaar also symbolized a woman’s ability to authentically navigate brains and beauty. In particular, I remembered our guest speaker, Nikki Johnson-Alfono, who shared how she rose from homelessness to running her own law firm and winning Ms. Universe while stressing the importance of authenticity. I admired Johnson-Alfono for her resilience and fearless pursuit of her passions. 

While Lamaar was solely recognized for her beauty throughout her lifetime, she never stopped working for her two passions, leaving marriages that held her back and serving as a shining example of authentic leadership. Hedy Lamarr resonated with me personally because of the contrast between my passions of cosmology and public policy. Throughout my athletic career, my coach instilled the attitude of “if you look good, you feel good” into my teammates and me. It remains a personal mantra that helps catapult me into settings I fear I am not capable of existing in. When I spend my extra time ensuring my hair is in place, my makeup is set and my snake earrings representing goddesses are in, that is when I feel most confident to insert myself in a male-dominated space. 

Hedy Lamarr and Nikki Johnson-Alfono taught me how to comfortably work and succeed in spaces that have rejected women for so long—and to do it for myself. Many of my peers in Women and Leadership have expressed a lack of confidence when filling leadership roles, which I certainly relate to. However, this program has helped me identify my tie and embrace my mantra of looking good to feel good and do good.