Article by Tatiana Parkhomova
Graphic by Francesca Zambelli, IG: @furan.z
It is in the very essence of human nature to judge others by appearance and we are all guilty of it. However, women are judged more negatively than men due to stereotypes that haunt them from the moment they are born. Society expects women to be tidy, pleasant-looking, kind and caring, and not following this set of expectations strips women of opportunities that men get at a much lower cost. When it comes to the workplace, rebelling against societal norms assigned to women can lead to denial of job opportunities or promotion, harassment from co-workers and lower wages.
How attractiveness influences wages
Attractiveness is often divided into two aspects: natural features (height, shape, facial features) and features that we can work on (make-up, grooming, clothes). In comparison to natural features, the latter has a bigger impact on how women are perceived in the workplace.
However, attractiveness does not ensure a smooth career journey. Attractive women tend to succeed in entry-level jobs, but being good-looking is often frowned upon in managerial positions. This is because beauty and attractiveness are associated with a lack of seriousness i.e. spending too much time on make-up or shopping. Moreover, the promotion of women to managerial positions is often attributed to their attractiveness rather than competencies. However, this does not deny that being good-looking can help women succeed in certain roles, such as sales.
Some studies show that attractiveness is equally as important for men when it comes to being successful in their careers. However, good grooming is highly correlated with career advancement for women while only half of the men were impacted by grooming when advancing in their careers. Grooming is the practice of keeping one’s appearance neat i.e. brushing and styling hair. This expectation proves that workplace stereotypes of the need for women to be neat and pleasant-looking still exist and are highly related to career success.
With existing rigid body standards, women are also expected to be slim in the professional environment. Overweight and obese women find themselves at a disadvantage as the wage penalty reaches 12%. It is also apparent that obese women are less likely to get hired compared to slim women, as “being fat” is associated with laziness and slopiness.
Beauty as a premium
Being physically attractive increases a woman’s chances to be successful at the beginning of her career. Generally, attractive people tend to be more confident and better communicators. Indeed, better-looking women make up to 10% more annually compared to less-attractive women.
It is also reported that a youthful appearance can be an advantage in the workplace. Generally, youth is associated with ambition, motivation and achievement. Not surprisingly, 73% of youthful-looking women stated that they feel like their appearance helped them land a job. Due to stereotypes, older men are perceived as more experienced and charismatic, whereas older women as seen as outdated and irrelevant. This is why many women revert to plastic surgery and other youth-maintaining practices to ensure their professional success.
It doesn’t come as a shock that women try to adapt and conform to societal norms, even when they don’t fully agree with the matter. It is easier to keep a tidy appearance, do monthly grooming and put on make-up compared to challenging existing gender stereotypes, as it is a safer option than risking opportunities. After all, it is financial security and social status that are at stake.
Beauty can be beastly
There is an incredibly thin line between looking professional and “overly sexual” in the workplace. It does not come as a surprise that one of the websites that come at the top of a Google search with workplace attire recommendations for women stresses the importance of dressing appropriately “without causing any distractions in the office”. A clear link can be made between workplace attire and school dress codes for young girls that police skirt length and exposed shoulders. Although it is men that cannot help but sexualise women that wear “revealing” clothing, women have to bear the responsibility for men’s inappropriate behaviour.
Dressing for work can be just as challenging as not caring about your appearance, as any kind of attire can be linked to a stereotype. For example, a tight short dress and heels can be immediately associated with an overly-sexual woman, while a brown maxi skirt and boots can come with an old-age connotation.
While some women report that they try to wear less make-up so others wouldn’t think that appearance is “all they care about”, others suffer from being sexualised. Recent studies show that sexual harassment claims made by attractive women are perceived as more “credible”, demonstrating that such women are almost expected to receive unwanted sexual advances, while less attractive women are often taken less seriously when reporting sexual abuse.
Women born with a naturally low waist-to-hip ratio, symmetrical facial features and full breasts are considered highly sexually attractive due to their physical build and this is hardly an advantage. Biologically, the waist-to-hip ratio is a cue for fertility and health in women. Conversely, it has been proven that the “femme fatale effect” is nothing but a liability at work. This means that naturally attractive women are perceived as seductive and manipulative, and less truthful rather than professional. Study results also show that participants perceived them as more worthy of termination compared to other women.
Good-looking women are often perceived in an overly negative way in male-dominated industries, such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Such industries are short of female role models and are driven by stereotypes. Here, attractiveness is often associated with incompetence and a lack of qualities to succeed in this field. To strive in this environment, women often adopt agentic traits, such as assertiveness and goal orientation. Femininity is frowned upon in STEM, hence women try to appear more “masculine” in the workplace. As women start behaving “like a man” and stop putting on make-up, male colleagues become more confused and build resentment, since this challenges existing gender norms. Similar dynamics can be observed in industries like construction and the military, where women are left with no other choice but to appear more masculine to get acknowledged.
Another downside of maintaining attractive looks is the financial burden that follows. The workplace and society as a whole expect women to spend large sums of money on updating their wardrobes, using cosmetics, visiting salons regularly and undergoing plastic surgery. With the wage gap being 17% in 2022, it feels unfair that women should spend hundreds of dollars monthly just to maintain a “pleasant” appearance.
Either way, most if not all working women face look-based prejudice which implies that there is no single appearance a woman can maintain without causing a negative reaction or creating dissonance.
What can be done
Workplace sexism and derogatory societal expectations are redundant. Look-based discrimination shifts the focus from competence and skills to appearance, reducing women to aesthetics. These are some of the main issues of modern-day feminism, but it is a personal choice whether to fight against injustice.
Expectations do not have to be followed, while beauty norms can be combatted by establishing new ones. Finding allies, reporting workplace misconduct and sexual harassment as well as doing what feels right will help break the chains of bias and prejudice against working women. However, that is not to say that companies should not take steps to create a safe workplace for women. Special departments can be created for observing misconduct and existing complaint-handling procedures can be simplified.
Moreover, organisations can host regular workshops to spread awareness about identifying and tackling misconduct. Most importantly, the burden of handling this issue should not fall on working women, as men can take steps to ensure a safer workspace and learn how to become allies.
Women should not be afraid to report workplace misconduct in fear of termination or other consequences and companies can do more to help the cause.
About the author:
Hi, my name is Tatiana Parkhomova and I am a feminist, activist and content writer. I have experienced look-based bias first-hand and have heard enough stories to write this article. My main goal is to spread awareness, which is why I write about critical social issues. More of my work can be found here.