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."
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"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." -Willa Cather
A logical fallacy called bifurcation (yes, it sounds like a disease) is used to make people believe that they can only choose between two extreme choices: love me or leave me, put up or shut up, etc. In relation to my career and my love life, I was once stricken by this crazy malady.
I spent over a decade in and out of love relationships that undermined my career and drained my creative energy along with my finances. The key problem was that I was convinced that I had two options: be a kickass, and powerful professional who scares off any prospective mate or surrender to that deep and profound love such that my ambitions blow away in the wind. For years, my psyche ping-ponged between these two choices like that was the only game in town. But why?
Turns out we women are often programmed into thinking that we can't have love (at least that good, juicy heated kind) and any sort of real career. This is not actually that surprising given the troubled history that America has with women in the workplace. Post WWII, women were supposed to quit their jobs and scurry back home and leave the careers for the returning men. And if you think we've come a long way from making women feel they don't belong in the workplace, consider Alisha Coleman. In 2016, she was fired because her period leaked onto a chair!
But try to keep a good woman down, and well, you can't (Alisha sued her former employer). Given enough information we will always find a way to overcome our situation. As we teach in my practice, Lotus Lantern Healing Arts, we are all our own gurus. The light in the lotus just offers a way to illuminate your path.
So what was I missing so many years ago when I kept struggling between two suboptimal choices? The answer is the understanding that if I wanted to have it all, I had to start living right now as if I could. For me to be with someone who supported me having a fantastic career, I had to believe that that was actually one of my choices and start living that way.
Of course that is easier said than done (like most life lessons). So once I made that realization, here are the three key changes I made (and no they didn't happen all at once):
First, I stopped apologizing. Why the hell do women always feel the need to apologize for everything! (Sorry for swearing! Jk.) In particular, why do we have to feel bad about time away from the homefront? Remember Don Draper stopping off at the bar before heading home? I took a Madman lesson from him and stopped apologizing for my free time and let go of my usual rush to get back. Instead I focused on enjoying the transition, which was often needed to release the stress of work. Whether I was slow-driving listening to my jams and singing at the top of my lungs or stopping off for a pedicure, a little ritual went a long way to making me feel like a real human when I walked through the door.
Second, I let go of perfection in order to be present. I stopped stressing over a work deadline and instead rescheduled it to tend to my love life or postponed a romantic dinner because a juicy work opportunity appeared. In this way, I did not force an unnatural choice or one I did not want but really paid attention to what felt right. Instead of feeling subpar in each realm, I end up getting the most out of my time in both places.
Third (and perhaps most significantly) I began to welcome and expect encouragement from the most significant person in my life. I made it clear to my partner that I wanted insight and not criticism. And since I knew I needed understanding and not saving, I said, "Please help me look at my career woes from a different angle instead of offering me advice." Ultimately, I only accepted partners that truly supported my dreams and didn't let me play small.
Today, some of the most exquisite pleasure I feel comes simply from my partner witnessing me. Having a cohort who really appreciates my struggles, helps me integrate work and life, and enjoys the wins together can be mind-blowing. Likewise, when the shit hits the fan (again, not sorry!), it's really important to have a partner that can hold space for you and help you remember those wins.
It's a constant battle. Our culture still perpetuates the myth by pitting love and career against each other (ever see Fatal Attraction?). Men don't always get this message, but then we don't need to wait for them to get it. All we have to do it start living right now in the way we truly deserve and bring others along with us. When my friends see me and my partner together separately killing it in the career department and fiercely loving each other they say, "Your relationship gives me hope."