The Makeup Tax is Real

How mascara and lipstick have the power to influence your career.

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Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

“You’re preaching to the choir. It’s a daily challenge. I do the best I can—and as you may have noticed, some days are better than others!”

Hillary Rodham Clinton


I hate wearing makeup. Ask anyone. The thought of foundation, powder, eyeliner, eyeshadow, concealer, blush, etc., makes me head for the hills. But, when I have a business meeting or am meeting someone for the first time, I dutifully put it on. My daughter always notices and asks, “Who are you meeting today?” and my husband will comment, “You should wear makeup more often.” I hate wearing makeup.

Here’s the reality: women who wear makeup earn more and are treated better. Let that sink in: the act of me applying MAC’s Lustre Lipstick (shade Touch) will give me an edge over a woman who doesn’t wear makeup, or worse, wears too much or too little makeup based on the random biases of the person I am meeting. Study after study has found that both men and women will judge a woman’s intelligence and competency based on her ethnicity and the amount and style of makeup she is wearing the first time that she is encountered. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, your perception of my ability to perform my job is formed, in your mind, by my makeup.

A study in 2011 paid for by Proctor & Gamble lead by Professor Etcoff and others from Boston University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found that makeup and facial luminosity (a fancy word for the color contrast between a woman’s lips and eyes and her skin tone) impacted the perceived level (high or low) of a woman’s intelligence, trustworthiness, and warmth. The men and woman who participated in the study “judged women made up in varying intensities of luminance contrast… as more competent than barefaced women, whether they had a quick glance or a longer inspection.” Another study found that, and I quote, “Women presented wearing cosmetics were perceived as healthier and more confident than when presented without. Participants also awarded women wearing makeup with a greater earning potential and with more prestigious jobs than the same women without cosmetics. The results suggest that women can successfully employ cosmetics to manipulate how they are assessed, which may be advantageous in social situations where women may be judged on their appearance, such as job interviews.” Have I mentioned I hate wearing makeup?

“Women invest time and money into doing their makeup because it impacts their relationships and their paychecks. And while both genders tend to buy haircuts, shaving cream, and moisturizer, the price of makeup is something men never have to worry about.”

Olga Khazan, The Atlantic

In 2017, the cosmetics industry generated $62.4 billion dollars (that’s the same as the GDP of Luxembourg). Some have estimated that an “average” woman spends, in total, 2 weeks per year putting on makeup. Back in 2015, Mint (the financial services company since acquired by Intuit) estimated that a woman will spend $15,000 over the course of her life on makeup (post-tax dollars). I hate wearing makeup.

Yes, some women never wear makeup; some look better without it and others simply reject wearing it on principle. Some women don’t have the time or resources and still, some don’t have jobs that involve interacting with the public. For many women, showing up at work or at a party without some mascara and blush has resulted in having to answer the age-old question, “Are you feeling okay?” I may have mentioned that I hate wearing makeup.

Now, it is not for me to judge any woman for wearing, or not wearing, makeup. I would, however, like to encourage every woman and man reading this to ask themselves the next time they interview a female candidate or see a woman presenting onstage or stumping on the campaign trail to ask themselves this question: what shade lipstick was she wearing? If you know the answer, it’s time to reassess what you really think of her.

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