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?


About Brenda

About the Author

Between client meetings in London

Between client meetings in London

In order to write about being technical and pretty, one should probably present one’s bona fides for each. This presents a bit of a challenge. I’m used to defending myself as being a real-o, true-lo technical person and trotting out a few well-chosen acronyms to prove it. But I’m considerably less convinced that I am actually pretty. What I do know is that I can convey myself as a professional woman, which isn’t quite the same thing as being pretty. It means having your outer appearance provide no distraction or incongruity from a Person Who Knows What They Are Doing.

Technical Bona Fides
OK, so am I really technical? I started writing web sites in 1997, using hand-coded HTML on a UNIX system. I spent about 10 years as a web application developer, writing everything from stored procedures, through business logic, up to front end displays. I like databases best. I know how to create an SOA architecture and can tell you how SOA builds on object orientation. I currently have a job where I regularly have to explain the difference between RESTful APIs and WSDL-based ones. Do I know everything? Of course not. But I can and do write real code.

My geek credentials go well beyond just coding, though. I have played in a role-playing game for twelve years now. I played in my first RPG when I was 12 years old. I love the German strategy board games. I prefer RPG-like video games (I love the Fable series of games). I’ve been to Gencon more than once, and I can explain the difference in probabilites between FUDGE dice and a D20 system, as long as you don’t want actual math.

I feel completely comfortable when I tell you: I am a technical person, and a geek.

Pretty Bona Fides

I feel a lot less confident telling you I’m pretty. For one thing, objectively, I’m no better than “eh”. I’m in my early 30s, 20 pounds or so overweight and not stunning to begin with. (My husband and mother-in-law will tell you otherwise. But they love me.) Combine these attributes with a fondness for pockets and a complete resistance to wearing shoes that aren’t comfortable, and you might very get the stereotype of a Geek Woman: obscure jokey t-shirt, baggy jeans & Birkenstocks.

But my path diverged from that expected outcome when I met my mother-in-law. She has been indefatigable in attempting to convert me to a bona fide professional woman. She’s bought me clothes in styles I would never have picked, provided me with makeup (and advice on how to use it), recommended moisturizer in the strongest of terms, gifted me with jewelry, forbidden certain shoe choices (“My arthritic mother wouldn’t be seen in those – and she’s dead!”), and generally pushed me towards making myself look good. Along the way, I’ve added my own flair and style, and figured out I LIKE looking good. And I’m willing to make (tactical, non-intrusive) sacrifices to get there.

I value most the compliments I’ve worked hardest for. I had an interview a few months ago with a Vice President of Professional Services. The feedback I got was that I was the “Most polished interview he had in five years”. There were a lot of things that went into that: deep technical knowledge, presentation skills, oration skills. But part of it was that I looked polished. My hair looked attended to. I had a great suit that really fit. I had nice looking shoes (that I could walk in) that matched the elegance of the outfit. My jewelry added a touch of style. My makeup was understated but evened out my looks. My hands were well kept. I acted polished, and I looked polished.

It’s taken me a lot of time, a lot of heel-dragging, and a lot of “why should I conform to other people’s expectations of beauty” to get to where I am today: which is someone who can show up in almost any professional or social situation and feel confident that I am appropriately and appealingly attired. So am I a fashion expert? No. But I think I might still have learned a few things about how to look as a woman in technology that you might find helpful.

Next Newer Entries