“You’re too pretty and feminine to manage this project,” said my account director at one of Australia’s largest management consulting companies.
I was working for a client in the transport industry and my boss had concluded that, due to my appearance, I lacked credibility with the client.
According to my account director, my skills and experience to manage this particular project were not in doubt. His belief that I was unsuitable for the job was entirely based on my appearance.
This form of discrimination is illegal, so it was a shock to hear my boss be so open about it. He was shocked too, but for a completely different reason.
My account director was surprised that I wasn’t flattered by his positive assessment of my appearance. Was I not listening? He’d just paid me a compliment! Surely I should just take the flattery and shut up.
Knowing this was not a fight I could win – it wasn’t the first time my appearance had been openly discussed by my male colleagues in relation to work with clients – I decided to look for a job at another consulting organisation.
But first, I dyed my hair brown. I knew that moving away from the blonde stereotype would help with my recruitment prospects and my salary negotiations.
For the record, I’m not suggesting that I have superior beauty, and I am in no doubt that I will be inundated by trolls who will relish the opportunity to confirm this. (Is there anything more repugnant to a man than a woman who thinks she’s attractive and doesn’t rely on him to tell her?) But I did tick enough of the boxes of our current cultural definition of beauty to be denied professional opportunities because of it.
Silicon Valley CEO Eileen Carey recently revealed to the BBC that she also dyes her hair brown so that she will be taken seriously at work.
“The first time I dyed my hair was actually due to advice I was given by a woman in venture capital,” says Carey who is the CEO of the tech start-up Glassbreakers.
“Being a brunette helps me to look a bit older and I needed that, I felt, in order to be taken seriously,” Carey says.
Carey has also swapped her contact lenses for glasses in an attempt to be seen more as a CEO than a sex object.
It is true that beauty can open doors for women in the workplace. We saw an example of this last week when a 2007 video emerged of Donald Trump claiming he’d hired “a beautiful girl who was 17 or 18” because “she’s so beautiful, she’s like a world-class beauty” despite the fact that the young woman didn’t have any experience.
Leaving aside the off-the-scale creep factor to this story, it is highly unlikely that this “world-class beauty” rose through the ranks of the Trump Organisation. Because while beauty can open the doors of low-status jobs, it can close them just as quickly for jobs that have power and are well paid.
University of Chicago professor Jaclyn Wong says that beauty can be a liability for women in senior management. The assumption that follows senior women who conform to cultural standards of beauty is that they must also be incompetent.
“Once women get into managerial positions, positions of leadership, positions of power, beauty becomes a liability because our stereotypes around beauty are that they’re incompatible with capability,” Wong told CNN.
Even men who think they are supporting women can still make the mistake of thinking that beauty and competence are mutually exclusive.
When it was first speculated that New Zealand’s new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern might become leader of the Labour Party, former Kiwis and Queensland rugby league coach Graham Lowe described her on breakfast TV as a “a pretty little thing” who would “look good” as Prime Minister.
It’s as if he had made the mistake of thinking he was talking about New Zealand’s new rugby mascot, not the future leader of the nation.
Since the first fairy-tale was penned, women have so often been bound by the straitjacket of either the maiden or the crone. Despite the centuries and the anti-discrimination legislation that has passed, women still cannot be both.
And then there are the women whose appearance falls too far outside current definitions of beauty that they are considered to be neither beautiful nor competent. If they’re not invisible, they are often scorned.
This is particularly the case for fat people, especially fat women. As Roxane Gay has written and spoken about, our cultural prejudice positions them as lacking in self-discipline and lazy – irrespective of their actual expertise.
This is just one more reason why we need more women in leadership making hiring decisions. Of course, women are not immune from imbibing misogyny, but women will be more likely to judge women by the same standards that men use to judge other men – by their skills and suitability for the job, rather than the colour of their hair and the prettiness of their face.