Women Who Wear This to Work are Deemed More Competent — But They're Also Judged

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AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
May 20, 2024 at 8:55AM UTC
“Attractive” people earn roughly 20 percent more than “average” people, so putting on makeup could mean pocketing a heftier paycheck. While women who wear makeup are reportedly considered more competent than those who don’t, however, donning cosmetics in the workplace is a balancing act — women are tasked with having to appear competent but not “unprofessional.”
“Women should be free to express their femininity without fear of shaming,” argues Linda Smith, a top female litigator in the country, who says she herself had moved from a “lowly first-year lawyer” to the only woman of her entering class to be made a partner. For over 38 years since, Smith has built a reputation for herself representing Fortune 500 companies and, today, she carries the titles of senior litigation partner at DLA Piper LLP and CEO of Meanest Woman Alive LLC. “It’s about attitude, not dressacting professionally and presenting yourself as confident and capable.”

What Does It Even Mean to Be Professional?

Despite what professionalism should be about, we still live in a world in which we’re consumed largely by looks. And that’s okay — to some capacity. 
“It doesn’t hurt to be easy on the eyes, as it is an asset to use, just like any other,” Smith explains. “Not because you’d ever demean your professionalism by consciously making yourself a sex object, but because sometimes the thoughtful deployment of a pretty smile can make your interactions with colleagues and clients easier. Just make it obvious that your looks are only the icing on the cake, and that you bring to the table all of your intellect, toughness and emotional intelligence… Pay attention to your appearance, not through the mirror of the mass media, but simply to make sure that you’re sending the right messages to the people around you.”
But sending the right messages is easier said than done, particularly as patriarchy places blame on women not for the messages they choose to send, but rather for the messages men too often choose to receive. Likewise, for many years, Smith says she’d received a running commentary of opinions on her makeup from the men in her field, “as if they felt they were entitled to express their preferences.”
Preferences. That’s just it — we all have preferences and, whether or not they’re solicited of us, we give them… or, simply, we judge silently.
Back in 2011, researchers delved into the ways in which we perceive others, particularly based on their makeup. They looked at 25 white, African-American and Hispanic female subjects aged 20 to 50 — they were photographed barefaced and in three other looks: “natural,” “professional” and “glamorous.” Then, 149 adults looked at the photos for 250 milliseconds, which is considered enough time to make a snap judgement. Another 119 adults were offered unlimited time to check out the same faces. All of the respondents generally deemed women with makeup more competent than barefaced women, regardless of how much time they had. That said, the more time they had to evaluate, the more they judged women with “glamorous” makeup as “untrustworthy” — an unfavorable trait in the workplace. 
In other words, the research suggests that cosmetics signal status, but women are nonetheless told that “less is more,” to avoid bold colors, to keep their nails cut short… 
“There are times when you want to give a powerful ‘I’m in charge here’ kind of impression, and women shouldn’t be afraid to do that,” by using a deeper lip color that could look shiny, Sarah Vickery, one of the study’s authors told The New York Times. “Other times you want to give off a more balanced, more collaborative appeal” with lip tones that are light to moderate in color saturation, providing a contrast to the skin without being “too glossy.” 

How Much Makeup Is Too Much Makeup, and According to Who?

Being “too much” of anything negatively affects women in the workplace, and we know that “trustworthiness” is indeed a growing concern of human resources departments across the country.
As evermore sexual harassment cases like the accusations made against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein are pursued to fruition, workplaces are rightfully tensing up. Some men are evading engagement with women altogether, and skipping individual meetings with female entrepreneurs, potential recruits and women who ask for informational or networking meetings. Even half of junior women avoid solo interactions, according to the Center for Talent Innovation, concerned that they may give off the wrong idea and that the risk of rumors could jeopardize their careers.
In fact, a poll by Morning Consult found that nearly two-thirds of men and women agree that people should take extra caution around the opposite sex in the workplace, and about a quarter think that private work-related meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. These numbers are exacerbated when those meetings are between married individuals — again, the notion of trustworthiness comes into play.
Because too much makeup seems untrustworthy, too much makeup could make women appear too risky to meet alone. This, in turn, further hurts their chances of establishing “sponsorships” — relationships with senior staff and people in positions of power who tend to help women earn more challenging assignments, raises and promotions.
“There are two, (well, three) sides to this story: men, women and human resources, and the side that often has the loudest voice in organizations is from male employees and leadership who, even with the best intentions, are fearful of engaging one-on-one with female colleagues at the risk of being accused of sexual harassment,” says Professor Jessica Methot, a human resources expert at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “Because harassment is based on perceptions rather than intent, male employees are concerned that they will unintentionally behave in a way that is perceived as inappropriate.” 
This fear has led to the common adoption of the “Billy Graham Rule” (also now labeled the ‘Mike Pence Rule’), whereby male leaders are urged to avoid spending time with women to whom they are not married. 
“Unfortunately, this approach penalizes women under the guise of protecting them, since women will be quarantined from one-on-one coaching and after-hours networking events that pave the way to the C-suite,” Methot explains.

How Can Women Build Sponsorships Without Forgoing Their Femininity?

Human resources departments are in a challenging position to tackle the conundrum: They are held responsible for preventing misconduct, protecting both male and female employees from accusation of and being harassed, and for investigating reports of these events. On the one hand, Methot adds, they want to install policies that proactively prevent harassment from occurring, but these policies have consequences that directly impact women’s careers.
There are two primary path organizations can take to support sponsorships between female employees and male executives and rid workplaces of worries over things as trivial as makeup. The first is to ensure the relationship is actually defined by sponsorship, which involves nominating a protégé for promotions, helping them gain visibility and ensuring they are considered for challenging assignments, and not mentorship, which involves frequent meetings to provide feedback, advice about professional development and emotional support, Methot explains.
The second path is to encourage developmental relationships beyond women’s formal sponsors, which involve individuals across the hierarchy (such peers and managers) and individuals outside the organization who take an active interest in a woman’s career. These individuals provide a protective mechanism that allow women to build a constellation of relationships with people who have their best interests in mind, who can act as sounding boards for ideas and to whom women can disclose dilemmas or misconduct involving male colleagues.
Of course, neither of these two solutions are an easy feat. 
“When a man and a woman work together, and especially if the man is more senior, there can be a sexual undercurrent that is distracting and tricky to handle,” Smith adds. “I’m not talking about sexual harassment, but simply the fear that ulterior motives could enter the picture.” 
For instance, Smith explains, a male boss can ask his male subordinate to grab a drink after work, or to join him and a client for a round of golf, and no one thinks twice about it. No one suspects that the underling wants to “sleep his way to the top” and, if the boss has a wife, she won’t feel threatened by those interactions outside the office.
“This happened to me countless times when I was a woman associate,” she says. “My peers would imply that I was getting ahead by using my sexuality, or by actually doling out sexual favors. And, if the partner had a wife, she could well be unhappy about her husband developing a close working relationship, especially outside the office, with a younger, attractive woman.”

What Can Women Do to Lift Each Other and Themselves Up?

A 2016 paper, published in Perception justifies the apprehensions with which many men grapple. Researchers photographed 40 female college students with and without makeup and presented those photos to a group of 128 mostly heterosexual male and female undergraduates. The observers rated the photos on “attractiveness,” “dominance” and “prestige.” Men saw the women wearing makeup as more prestigious (not dominant, as men don’t tend to see women as physically threatening), and women saw them as sexually competitive and thus socially dominant. The same researchers then conducted a second study asking the female observers how jealous they’d feel if the photographed woman were to interact with their partners — and jealousy was ubiquitous. 
It’s no secret, then, that women are part of the problem and our slut-shaming culture. But women can take action in their own lives to help normalize these male-female sponsorships. 
“We have to combat that power dynamic by being very savvy and strategic in approaching a potential sponsor,” Smith advises. “You need to make sure that the sponsorship target understands both your abilities and your value to him, so that he becomes convinced that it is in his best interests to sponsor you. You can do so by performing at a very high level, volunteering for exposure opportunities (no sponsor is going to squander his political capital or put his reputation on the line to speak up on your behalf unless he works directly with you, or, if he is too senior for that, you contribute to a project he identifies with, join a committee he serves on, or do a special assignment in his bailiwick), and promote your own accomplishments. After you have shown your talents and value, make sure that your sponsor is fully apprised of your game plan for advancement in the company in order to get his buy-in.”
Methot agrees that, while she’d love to be able to say that women shouldn’t care about their appearances and instead focus on their performances and merit, society is not yet there. 
“Women need to be especially conscious of how they present themselves to ensure they are exceeding the standards of professionalism with respect to their appearance and behavior,” she says. “Unfortunately, we still need to actively prevent colleagues from attempting to attribute our success to our ‘flirtations’ or ‘attractiveness’ or ‘brownnosing’ or even (non-existent) affairs with superiors… It is a balancing act, but we cannot ignore the reality that we are more likely to get interrupted in meetings, more likely to have our ideas attributed to men in the room and more likely to have our successes attributed to external circumstances that are unrelated to our competence.”
In the meantime, company climates are largely a function of the signals that management, executives and human resources send, Methot says, and these signals include “whether there are women in leadership positions, which demonstrates that women have a path upward; how integrated women are into informal organizational networks, which act as pipes through which organizational gossip, inside information and sponsorship flow; and whether women have the opportunity to be mentored by senior leaders.” They also include whether or not harassment is monitored, investigated and penalized without concern for shattering guilty higher-ups’ reputations.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.
This article was written by a FGB Contributor.

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