Why bother?

I spent a lot of my youth and young adulthood feeling that anyone who judged me on my looks was someone whose good opinion I could live without. I was loved by a good parter. I was happy with myself. Why should I conform to some sexist, culturally derived notion of beauty just to please them? I had (have, actually) no desire to look like a fashion model.

But there are a lot of reasons – internal and external – why it pays to attend to how you look.The internal ones you hear a lot about: how you will feel better when you look good, the morale boost of being attractive. There is some truth to those. But what I’m paying attention to here are the external ones. In short, people treat you differently based on how they think you look. This goes beyond, “And when you look good, you are more confident blah blah blah”. This study,done by Harvard University and published in the New York Times, concludes that makeup “…increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness”. I think that lesson of “looking good means people think you’re better” can be extended beyond makeup. Still, for the scientifically minded, here it is: a double blind study showing that you can be more effective in (most) jobs if you pay attention to how you look.

Should this be the case? Probably not. Is this the way society ought to be? Unlikely. Should work be a pure meritocracy based on production? That would be nice. But right now that’s not the case. As women, we already suffer a penalty in the “Being taken seriously department”. Add in being women in a technology field, and sometimes it feels as though that penalty is squared. Is it cubed if you add in “Being an unfashionable woman in a technology field?” I don’t know. I do think that whatever mitigations we can take to lessen the slope of our uphill battle, we should seriously consider as a tool in our arsenal.

It might not seem like conforming to society’s standards for good looks can help the cause of women in technology, but I am going to argue that it does. Some of the key reasons that the share of women in technology is actually dropping since the 1980s include: lack of mentorship, lack of role models, lack of desire and stereotype threat. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario: there aren’t women going into science and technology because there aren’t women in science in technology already. So if we few (we proud few, we band of sisters!) can take steps to be successful, to be seen, to impress our peers with our overall competence… that helps all other women. Additionally, it might convince some girls who WANT to look pretty and feminine that they do not have to check their cute heels at the door if they want to be a programmer or an electrical engineer.

What do you think? Do you believe that it’s selling out to change your look because it may make you more successful? Have you ever noticed a difference in how you’re treated at work based on how you look? Do you treat women differently based on their external presentation? Or do you work in a place that is a true meritocracy?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. BSS
    Aug 01, 2012 @ 11:46:28

    What you say is true. Studies show it, and personal experience affirms it. People assume better of you when you’ve bothered to wear something flattering and spend at least 5 minutes on your face. Outcomes are better.


  2. bflynn
    Aug 02, 2012 @ 02:49:16


    You’re totally right. I spent a lot of my youth thinking that was very shallow of other people. But it is a truth we need to live with!



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