8 Professionals On What They Did When They Realized “Looks Mattered” In Their Office

high-heels

For women, experiencing sexism in the workplace is, unfortunately, not at all uncommon. In fact, according to a study, “well over three quarters of women (or 81 percent) have been victims of sexist jokes at work.” That sexist jokes alone, which is just one small slice of the pie. For anyone who’s watched just a few episodes of Mad Men, it’s clear that we’ve come a long way from the days where men openly commented on the attractiveness and sexual prowess of their female colleges, but it’s not entirely absent from the modern workplace. While I want to imagine (in my idealistic, rose-colored glasses worldview) that we live and work in a society that values women for their intelligence more so than their looks, that’s simply not the case. Research, study, experts, psychologists, hiring managers, and HR personal are just some of the people who have revealed that looks do matter. 

Studies reveal that looks (such as hair color, weight, height, body proportions, etc.) affect how much people get paid, what positions they are able to secure, how quickly they get promoted, whether or not they’re fired in their lifetime, among other things. One study even showed that having a certain BMI equaled a higher salary. A Forbes article called Think Looks Don’t Matter? Think Again, interviewed Gordon Patzer, a psychologist from Chicago, and talks about the reason “better looking” people get promoted more often and more quickly. The article says:

Various psychological reasons can answer why we choose to promote better-looking people and keep the rest behind. For ancestral humans, better-looking people were thought to be more productive and fecund, according to Patzer. And, interestingly, able to bring home more food. From a psychological standpoint, Patzer says, ‘people of higher physical attractiveness are more persuasive, which is critical in the workplace.’

It’s kind of crazy to think about this apparent “unconscious prejudice” we have (as Malcom Gladwell calls it in his book Blink), but a lot of women I talk to admit perceiving it themselves in their place of work. I wanted to hear more about what they had to say on the matter, so I talked to eight women about their experiences with looks mattering the office, and how that reality affects their life. Take a look.

1. “I mean, it’s not really a secret or a big surprise to me. I’ve always been acutely aware of how the prettier girls around me all advanced more quickly than I, despite not being as qualified, experienced, or generally as good as me at what they do. I’m being honest here — I’m well aware of what I can offer and the caliber of my skill set versus my peers. I’m actually not bitter about it, it is what it is. I do what I can to make myself look nice for work, to buy nicer clothes, and to put more effort into my grooming overall (i.e. hair, nails, waxing, etc.). Yes, it sucks to have to work so much harder at it than some of the other women around me, but it is what it is.” — Lena

2. “When I began working in the professional world about three years ago, I very quickly learned that my scrubby shoes and bag were not going to cut it in the industry I’m in. They say to ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have,’ which I always loathed hearing until I actually got into the corporate culture here in the city. Now, I’m like ‘hell yes.’ Preach. I feel like there should be an entire college class that’s focused on like, ‘How To Look Your Best: Corporate Self-Care 101.” Maybe then so many people wouldn’t be incredibly lost when they reflect on why they aren’t getting promoted.” — Elisa

3. “Honestly, I would quit if I found how much looks mattered to some companies/people. It’s not the kind of environment I want to work in, and I know myself well enough to know I could never tolerate that kind of attitude and/or behavior. I hold down three different jobs: working at a bakery, as a nanny, and as a freelance web designer, specifically because I can’t stand the suffocating office culture. I’m not going to spend my life working and being shoved around — emotionally, psychologically, and physically — by a bunch of chauvinistic men in senior management roles who expect me to look and act a certain way. My life is too valuable to be influenced by that nonsense. I’m focused on doing good work in whatever job I’m in, not primping and polishing myself into an oblivion.” — Nadia

4. “I’m a small-business owner at a brick and mortar store, so I have no bosses or supervisors looking over my shoulder. However, it’s MY responsibility to present myself a certain way and to embody the ethos of the brand in my everyday wardrobe at the store. We sell yoga paraphernalia, all-natural beauty products, billowy tops in bright colors, stuff like that. So, it’s important that I also look like someone that people would respect and hold up as being the pillar on which the brand and store is built. Looks matter very much because I’m almost a product that’s being sold to people as they walk in the door — I act as the customer service rep, brand manager, salesperson and driving force behind all the items we sell. LOTS OF PRESSURE!” — Lana  

5. “I work at a big bank in a major city, and looks 100% matter. My mentor told me my first to invest in a pair of high quality heels, and to mirror the styles that the older (and more well-paid women) were wearing. Those were the $700 red-bottomed Louboutin shoes. They are a status symbol that you have taste and class and the money to buy them. Even if you’re an entry-level employee, projecting the image of ‘success’ is crucial for people to look at you and think ‘yeah, she should be promoted.’ Obviously, it sounds terrible, I know. But, you have to do what you have to do. I started here making about 80k, and it just comes with the territory of making good money. You gotta play the game, or get out.” — Julia

6. “The first time I realized how much looks mattered, was when I went to one of those Dress For Success seminars in college, which was geared toward women specifically. It was hosted by my on-campus career center, and they were trying to give us the ‘tools needed to succeed in the workforce.’ Part of that training meant a crash course in how short your skirt should be, what an appropriate heel height looked like, what kind of tops to wear during summer (nothing revealing), etc. They really emphasized looking professional, clean, and put-together so that people took you seriously. They were really brutally honest with us, and gave us tough love. They said, the system isn’t perfect, but until it is (or ever is), you’ve got to learn what you can do to make sure your professional skills are taken seriously.” — Lauren

7. “A co-worker of mine pulled me aside, and essentially told me that my hair and eyebrows could ‘use some work.’ It was about two weeks before we were traveling to meet a client, and I was fresh out of school as a 22-year-old sales rep for a cosmetic company. She was very sweet about it, and it helped that we were kind of close, but she explained that we had to look a certain way to represent the brand at the highest possible caliber. My hair was reallllly too long and looked childish, and we were repping a fairly cutting edge product. She suggested I visit the guy that cut her hair, and passed along his card. It turns out she was able to expense the services I got done that day, which ended up being a pretty cool perk. Sometimes, being told looks matter can be worth it I guess.” — Monica

8. “Hah! It’s funny, because I’m a nurse and I actually chose this profession because it allows me to focus on work work and not the superfluous BS that comes with having a job in the corporate world. I knew I really wanted to help people and do the absolute most with the skills I had. I realized early on that the kind of people I respect don’t care about ‘looking the part.’ It’s a super-rewarding career, and I’m really thankful that looks don’t play a huge role.”  — Jamie

Image via Unsplash

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  • Elbee

    I definitely agree that everyone, men and women, should take stock of their office culture and dress accordingly. Unfortunately there are things we don’t have control over, like whether we are considered attractive or not and the advantages that may or may not offer.

    However, I don’t agree that women should have to keep up certain appearances that men do not. For example, I was reading an article in Money magazine, where they gave a woman and two men makeovers that involved their aesthetics and work goals. The woman was told that she should start wearing makeup because it signaled that she was willing to put in effort and cared about her look. Wtf!? I couldn’t believe I was reading this, and in Money magazine of all places. I’ve never worn makeup in my life and yet I still present a very put-together aesthetic at work. I hate sexist work “advice” like that.

  • nicolacash

    While I generally agree that looks matter at work, I 100% refuse – and my dad always bothers me about this – to wear heels ever. My feet are too big/wide, I look like an injured deer trying to walk in them, and they’re incredibly painful to me. Why put myself through physical pain just to prevent other’s judgments? makes no sense to me.

    • Anon

      And you’ll save yourself foot injuries later. I wish I had taken your position 5 years earlier than I did.

    • Roselyne

      Word.

      I’ve work heels and corsets, and I maintain that corsets are actually way more comfortable. Flats all the way, and ideally throw the corset out the window too.

    • Winterlight

      I invested in some very nice flats, and nobody thinks twice about them. Heels are both painful and IMO unsafe. I’ve had to evacuate the building at work and half the women in heels were carrying them and going barefoot- having to walk down 20 flights of stairs in them is no joke and pretty perilous.

  • stephforeigncountry

    This another reason why I love being a teacher. I don’t come to work in jeans (my choice) or anything age-inappropriate, but beyond that, it’s all about comfort. This means cotton dresses, leggings, no heels, etc. I’m too busy marking essays and planning lessons to care overmuch for my hair or make-up. School dress codes for students can be very polarising, but I think the focus should be on the learning: are the kids succeeding? Are they doing well in lessons? Are you teaching effectively? If so – then crack on!

  • AN

    Women shouldn’t be torn down for doing their best to work the systems they find themselves in, but reading things like this should really make people think critically about makeup, shaving, and other grooming habits being purely influenced by choice.

  • Anon

    I’ve noticed that no one in my office wears makeup. I wear more skirts than other women in the office, but I balance it by being very modest. I’ve started picking up necklines like boatneck or crew so I don’t have even the possibility of wardrobe malfunction. (I’m also a lot younger than most of the other people in my office, so I don’t want them thinking about my body ever, really). Really, I feel best when I’m tailored, covered, and minimalist in my aesthetic. Anything too aggressively feminine (frilly, lacy, etc) wouldn’t play well in my field.

  • alyjarrett

    I’ve had male and female managers tell me that marketing is all about personal branding, appearances, and professionalism, and even though I can play the part in a pant suit, I grumble the whole way to the mall when I have to buy “work clothes.” I honestly find it pointless unless I’m working with clients, and I refuse to spend significantly more time than a man on getting ready for work in the morning. It’s complete BS that a man can roll out of bed and be fine as long as he’s clean and dressed, but women are expected to primp.

    Thank goodness I work in an SF startup now. No makeup, ponytails, and jeans and flats all day everyday! People work better when they’re comfortable, period.

  • Raquel Moss

    It’s a little strange in my industry; I’m a software developer. In order to look the part and be respected more by other developers, I should probably go for a ‘jeans and hoodie’ aesthetic (which I sometimes do). There have been studies done where a female developer went to a conference wearing a t-shirt and jeans one day, and a dress the other. On the t-shirt and jeans day, more people assumed that she was a technical person with knowledge of the industry. I tried to find the link for where I read this, but I couldn’t track it down, sorry!

    Anyway, I like to dress in a fairly femme way, to challenge the notion of what a software developer looks like. I’m not the only one who does this! I’ve spoken to quite a few women in the industry who consciously decide to wear more typically feminine clothing and make up in order to say “Fuck you, this is what a developer looks like”.

    In many ways I’m glad that I don’t have to hold myself to a perfectly quoifed, made-up, and be-suited standard, but it’s still interesting to see how expectations within my industry affect my choices in how I present myself.

  • Tobi

    I work in an office with a “business casual” dress code and, honestly, I don’t mind it at all. I live in a VERY culturally-casual area so wouldn’t want to wear my weekend clothes to work, even if I could. I look at it this way: Everyone, to a certain degree, works in marketing. YOU are the product that you are selling. How you present yourself (looking put-together and appropriately dressed) is an indication of how you expect to be treated. Don’t sell yourself short!

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