While the Facebook COO ponder overed terrorism at the Swiss winter conference, her outfits came underneath scrutiny. Did anyone seriously expect her to swap high fly the coops for moon boots?

Sheryl Sandberg and New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin arrive at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 20 January 2016.
Sheryl Sandberg and New York Times newspaperwoman Andrew Ross Sorkin arrive at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 20 January 2016.
Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Duplicates

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made some pretty plucky statements at Davos about how social media could misguide the fight against terrorism. By giving a platform to “counterspeech to the idiolect that is perpetuating hate,” she argued, Facebook could be an gadget for peace.

The panel session was reported, across much of the internet, as “It’s snowy and dispassionate in Switzerland, but Sheryl Sandberg wore a lightweight burgundy reprove and matching high heels, with no tights.” The inference in some accounts seemed to be that Sandberg should be a bit dizzy, and didn’t realise that a conference held at 1,560m surpassing sea level in the Swiss Alps in January might be chilly.

I can’t succour thinking this an unlikely analysis of how a 46-year-old billionaire and extensive power player operates. In fact, Sandberg dressed with utter pragmatism. Davos is the world’s power-dressing catwalk. It is to CEOs what the Paris haute couture exposes are to Hollywood actresses. It is a conference from which images are timber across the world, which is a clear business case for broaching your A-game to what you wear. Also, it’s not often you get camouflaged for work knowing that a selfie with Leonardo DiCaprio or Emma Watson is on the be opens, and no one wants to mess that one up.

There is a maddening can’t-win-either-way unfairness in criticising Sandberg for not apparel warmer clothes – I am pretty sure that if she’d worn salopettes and moon boots, that leave have grabbed the headlines even more firmly. (There is also balking ignorance about how women run their daily lives. The concept of acquiring both heels for the office and a practical pair of shoes for restless is par for the course in many offices but – because men don’t do the overflow bag thing – even not factored in to how we read a woman’s outfit.)

Sandberg, like all the men encompassing her, power-dressed. She chose clothes to project competence, seniority, value. For a man, that means a suit and sturdy shoes; for a woman, it closes a dress and heels. What Davos flags in stark basso-rilievo low relief is how unequal this power-dressing playing field is, and how that effect reflects more important ones. Just as the proportion of girls in attendance flags up the too-slow progress of women’s representation at the top levels of sedulousness – 18% of those at Davos this year were women, beared with 17% last year and 16% the year prior to that, a glacial rate of change which does not proffer these self-proclaimed dynamos are throwing their full manipulate behind a movement towards equality – so the physical setting of Davos, its petulant climate and treacherously iced streets and general air of rugged, Revenant-esque manliness emphasises both how judicious men’s trouser suits are in challenging conditions, and how impractical the women’s comparable look is.

Sheryl Sandberg has a clear formula for what she clothes: fitted dresses, medium-height heels, block colours in the blue-red-purple arc. Not yellow, not pink, no publish. No jewellery apart from earrings. It is remarkably consistent. Interestingly, there is not a individual sentence in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Outstrip, about what to wear. Her strategy is to neutralise this discussion with a consistent look which is easily recognisable as the homogeneous of the 21st century female in the public eye. It is a kind of bland, business-lounge attraction: the fitted dress, the court shoes, the colour palette, the polish lines and sleek polish are recognisable in women from the Duchess of Cambridge to Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in Veep.

Hillary Clinton at the Rochester Opera House on 22 January 2016
Hillary Clinton at the Rochester Creation House on 22 January 2016. Photograph: Faith Ninivaggi/Reuters

Bit of fluffs have good reason to stick to this formula. Unite your head above the tailored-dress parapet is a risky province. Note how, as her campaign has gathered intensity, Hillary Clinton has changed her sartorial campaigns. A wardrobe once noted for its theatrically bright colours – trouser trials in mustard yellow, or kingfisher blue – has lost its flourish. Her trials now are usually navy, grey or black. The earrings and bold necklaces are withdraw. Fashion is a powerful communication tool but it is also a nuanced and interpretative one, and it appears Senator Clinton has ruled that the risks of being misapprehended make fashion a game not worth playing.

Sandberg looks to me have a weakness for a woman who can handle herself. (Anyway, she – along with all her manful colleagues – is no doubt limo-ed from door to door.) If she can accede to her footing so surely on the uneven playing field of business power put on ones sunday best clothing, the icy streets of Davos will have been a doddle.