"And you should smile more often," he said, leaning in. As if he was sharing with me the secret to my advancing in the organization. "You should just smile."
That was the feedback I received early on in my career. Impromptu words of wisdom from a well-meaning male colleague. It would seem as though that smiling would be the key to my success. My lack of smiling was clearly holding me back.
On one occasion when I was sitting, tapping away quietly at my keyboard. Someone came up to me and said "What's wrong? Is something wrong?"
No that was just my resting face. I was just concentrating on an email. I wasn't smiling.
Another time I was walking down the hallway. On a mission to make it to a meeting on time. "What's wrong? Is something wrong?"
No I was just wearing heels that are too high. I was developing a blister on my heels. I wasn't smiling.
And a third time. I was listening intently in a meeting. Taking notes and following along in the conversation. "What's wrong? Is something wrong?"
No I was just paying attention. And thinking about next steps for the project. I wasn't smiling.
Throughout the course of my career, I inevitably started to smile more. I was conditioned to smile more. I smile often. I smile to make people feel welcome. I smile to disarm people. I smile and even throw in a laugh to cut the tension in any given situation. I smile when given tough feedback. I smile when others are angry. I smile when I am angry, sometimes growling through my teeth. I smile often and smile plenty.
"You should smile more often. Just smile." But when is the last time we ever asked a man to smile more?
If a man doesn't smile, it's ok. We never question, never doubt. He's commanding, he has a presence and gravitas. He's a leader. He's a visionary. He's someone we can follow. He will lead us to where we need to go. Follow that man!
We don't smile? The narrative can quickly go in another direction.
Then we are cold. Lack empathy. Lack emotional intelligence. People just can't seem to connect with us. We make people uncomfortable. We appear aggressive, sometimes threatening. People wonder if we like them, if we approve of them, if we can lead teams. If people will follow us. If we can make an impact. We just don't have that warmth, that energy, that charisma- those intangible qualities that make that next great leader.
It would be so much simpler if we just smiled. So why don't we?
Because maybe like our friend Kim Kardashian we don't want wrinkles. Because we don't feel well that day. Because we have blisters on our feet from heels that are far too high. Because we are just intently listening, planning what action we have to take next. Because we are fed up with the comments, the jokes, the daily attack of micro-aggressions we as women face in our lives.
Because some of us just don't like to smile, because we don't have time to smile. We aren't here to make friends. We aren't here to smile and show off our happiness and make everyone else comfortable. We are here to make moves and make things happen just like our male colleagues. We are here to make as much of an impact as humanly possible.
So what does smiling have to do with anything?
Next time you are in a meeting. And someone questions why she doesn't smile enough. Why she's so aggressive. Why she's so calculating. Why she doesn't collaborate. Why she's difficult.
Ask yourself and the others in the room, would we use the same words to describe a male leader? And doubt his capabilities?
And for the record. I do love to smile. I have a great smile. I smile often. Because life is good.
But please don't ask me to smile. Unless we are taking a selfie. Unless we are out enjoying a glass of frose. Unless I am with my children, snapping a photo, and we all shout "Cheese!" Then I will smile on command.
- The Art of Unplugging: Just Put Down The Phone - Swaay ›
- The Secret To Saying No Without Pissing People Off - Swaay ›
- Arianna Huffington: "Don't Hire Brilliant Jerks" - Swaay ›
- Limitless: How to Start Your Own Successful Business at 21 - Swaay ›
- 30 Signs You're An Adult… Or In Denial About It - Swaay ›
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."