Another Double Bind For Women: Beauty as a Liability at Work

The paradox of beauty being all important for women to pursue while also making them untrustworthy at work is hard to swallow.

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I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review recently that caught my attention. Ania G. Wieckowsli’s piece, For Women in Business, Beauty is a Liability. The author refers to the research of Leah D. Sheppard and Stefanie K. Johnson that found that “beautiful women were perceived to be less truthful, less trustworthy as leaders, and more deserving of termination than their ordinary-looking female counterparts.”  And  there was almost no change in people’s responses to the attractiveness of men.

This research underlines yet another double bind that exists for women at work, and we need to talk about it.   Existing research points to attractiveness in women being correlated to other aspects of life success (more likely to partner, more attention in school) and when it comes to social bias, beauty in women is driven home as THE most important aspect of ourselves.  So, the double bind  lies in this message: attractiveness matters more than anything if you are a woman, but don’t be TOO attractive because it will make you seem untrustworthy at work .

Darn it, what’s a woman to do then?

 I find myself really tired of any discussion at all of women’s appearance related to work.  The landmines of contradictory messaging, societal expectations, and direct and indirect bias are everywhere, and all of it occludes what really matters at work: doing the job, partnering well, showing up.   At the same time, I appreciate articles like this and research that is done that illuminates what women have felt and experienced for, well, ever. We are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

I recently participated in an interview process on behalf of a client.  I noticed how much the appearance of the female candidates mattered to people’s reactions to  the candidates, but it never came up when the male candidates were discussed. It wasn’t overt, but instead landed in complements about accessories, reflections about professionalism, and other nuanced references. I found myself picturing candidates prepping for their interviews, her efforting with make-up, accessories, clothing, and overall look (too stern, too business-y, too casual) and him likely spending very little energy on his look, instead researching the company to prepare. It all makes me wonder how far we have really come.

I, too, notice the attention I put into how I look for client engagements. I recently received feedback about my outfit during  a large keynote, as if it was what mattered most. That hurt and  triggered a short-term shame cyclone.  I’ve learned how to apply  makeup to enhance my natural look. I worry first about how I will look when what I know that what counts is what I contribute. This does not make me a bad or wrong person, but instead, a normal woman navigating the tensions of appearance as it connects to competence at work.

When I was young, I had the “look” of the white feminine ideal: blonde, tall, slender.  Aging has shifted my appearance, and I find relief in a declining emphasis on appearance as my primary  value. And yet, it sits there under the surface, always driving some small element of focus and attention.   Look good, but not too good.

I offer no answers here. Instead, I offer a call to action for all of us to notice.  What do we notice first in men and in women? How can we de-emphasize appearance as a factor at work for women, and  focus on what matters: competence, skill, appearance? In others and perhaps most importantly, in ourselves. And if a woman is attractive, can we notice whether that impacts her trustworthiness factor for us, especially as a leader?

Noticing our reactions, our mindset, and our bias comes first.

I am noticing.

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