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Professional woman with makeup on showing how women are expected to wear makeup to work

Are Our Makeup Choices Affecting Our Career Progression?

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Main image – Guillefaingold/Stocksy

Without even thinking about it, most of us probably put on a little bit of makeup each morning before we head into our place of employment. It seems almost as obvious as ensuring we’re showered, or wearing matching shoes.

A semi-automatic beauty routine is just a part of the professional woman’s morning chores.

But what if there’s a slightly more sinister reason why we feel so compelled to spruce up for the office?

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Social Stratification and Mobility found that wearing makeup to work can have a literal impact on a woman’s career trajectory – right down to her monthly pay check. Thus, wearing makeup becomes something much more than simply an aesthetic choice – it becomes a career decision.

So what can be done about this social phenomenon? Are women being done dirty in their careers simply because of the beauty choices they’re making?

We’ve interviewed beauty experts and businesswomen alike to get their perspectives on the politics of wearing makeup to work – and whether it’s time to rethink the expectations placed on women.

 

Eye shadow collection macro shot texture background makeup

Image – Nik_Merkulov/Adobe

 


Fix up, look sharp

The fact that something as inconsequential as our physical appearances can have an impact on the trajectories of our careers reads like something straight out of an episode of Black Mirror. Estimates vary, but the same study found that being conventionally attractive can mean up to 20% more pay.

While this “attractiveness-income relationship,” is bad enough once actually in a job, worryingly, the gap is even wider for those looking for work in the first place.  One 2012 report found that those who are perceived as attractive have a 36% higher chance of a second interview.

 


A female problem

A certain degree of grooming for professional situations sounds like something we can all agree to be acceptable.

But evidence shows that while the issue of perceived attractiveness affects all genders, it’s women who take the biggest hit – and that their attractiveness is directly linked to the idea of looking ‘groomed’ (as anyone who’s been asked if they’re feeling ill simply because they decided to forgo concealer for the day will agree).

For Tara Furaini, CPO Consultant at Not the HR Lady, the unequal emphasis on women here isn’t a shock.

She remembers that “an employer of mine sent me to MAC for a seasonal look. For what? Leasing luxury apartment homes, not a Vogue cover shoot.

“This wasn’t merely about looking good; it was an overt prescription for how to be ‘professionally acceptable.’ It reflects a bigger issue: that our worth, and even our income, is tied to our adherence to these coded norms.”

Furaini, too, points out that the opposite of this attractiveness bias is also true. She claims there is often a, “deep-seated, often subconscious judgments we reserve for women who don’t fit a prescribed mould. Men get to be ‘eccentric’ or ‘unique,’ while women get labeled ‘unprofessional’ or ‘careless.’”

And it seems the higher we climb the corporate ladder, the worse the problem is.  In 2019, a trio of scientists found that the more high powered the job, the better female candidates for it were expected to look, with those who appear “insufficiently groomed” penalised in the recruitment process.

 


No makeup makeup

Even on top of this is another invisible hoop women are required to jump through: that of ‘office-appropriate’ beauty.

Professional women may be expected to wear makeup, yes – but they must never look as though they are actually enjoying wearing makeup. This means all of the most fun aspects of beauty (glitter, bright lipstick, false eyelashes) are out, while painstakingly applied shades of beige and brown are very much in.

Women have to walk an incredibly fine line with their office appearance, achieving this mythical ‘good grooming’ but not going too far and looking ‘inappropriate for work.’

 


The real cost

Aside from the mental toll it can take on someone worrying every single day about what they look like for work (as opposed to say, focusing on doing your job well), there’s another huge cost this has to women.

The time and money it takes to achieve an appropriate level of workplace grooming is enormous. It’s essentially a whole other job.

An average female grooming schedule likely includes investing in haircuts, hair removal, hair colouring, a full skincare routine, and an intensive yet ‘natural-looking’ everyday makeup routine – and this is before we even enter into the thorny topic of invasive treatments and injectables.

In fact, a survey from beauty e-tailer Skinstore estimated that women spend $300,000 in their lifetime just on their faces – so you can see why we may be concerned about the financial implications of not attaining office-perfect grooming standards.

Furaini agrees that “the financial and temporal investment women have to make for workplace grooming is not a trivial matter – it’s a second job.

“With COVID, many women experienced a reprieve, redirecting their grooming budget to other necessities. This freedom laid bare an often-ignored fact: women have been spending, on average, double the time and money than men have on maintaining a ‘professional’ appearance, even when their roles and responsibilities are identical.”

 

Womans eyebrows close up. Beauty. Beautiful girl with eyebrow brush. Girl with natural make up. Eyebrow correction workplace women makeup

Image – Nikoletta/Adobe

 


A bigger issue

Of course, we would be remiss to ignore the fact that this disparity in grooming standards is reflective of a professional disparity between men and women more generally. Nina Prisk of Update Aesthetics points out that “the appearance expectations put on women in the workplace do reflect the female struggle in society as a whole.

“We see it frequently in the media whereby a woman who has achieved something notable receives commentary on her looks in a way that a male counterpart would not.”

Furaini also notices that this hyperfixation of female appearance is reflective of a hyperfixation of their workplace performance as a whole. She asks, “If a woman’s lip colour can ignite a flurry of comments, what does that say about the depth at which her professional abilities are assessed?

“This isn’t just workplace culture; it’s a pervasive societal lens that impacts how women are treated in public and private spheres. It’s about control, conformity, and the deeply ingrained mechanisms that uphold them.”

 


Best face forward?

Nonetheless, amidst all of this bashing of female societal norms, there is another side of the coin to be considered.

Sometimes, wearing makeup does seem to aid with better workplace performance, thanks to the transformative effect it can have on our confidence. As a beauty writer, I should be the first to concede that the whole point of wearing makeup is to make yourself feel good.

Durana Elmi, the COO of wellness brand Cymbiotika, agrees that “taking the time to present oneself professionally and well-groomed can significantly enhance confidence and pride in one’s work, especially in client-facing roles.

“I strongly believe in the adage, ‘When you look good, you feel good.’ I’ve observed that I lead most effectively when well-rested and confident in my appearance.”

But problems arise when makeup at work becomes not just a bonus boost of confidence, but a bare-minimum expectation.

As with pretty much all issues pertaining to the female experience, it all comes down to choice. And when it comes to workplace grooming, choice seems to be something that male-presenting people have, while female-presenting people don’t.

As this study puts it, “Although beauty norms reinforce gender inequality at the societal level, individual women who attain beauty reap real rewards–such as attracting mates with greater resources or creating a favourable impression in the workplace.”

 

Woman with makeup on for work

Image – Guillefaingold/Stocksy

 


Look to the future

Once we begin to examine the workplace grooming phenomenon, it’s pretty easy to become despondent at the unfairness of it all.

As the 2019 study says, “When intense social pressure turns pursuing beauty into a mandate rather than a freely chosen activity, beauty practices become socially coercive, an obligation women must fulfil.”

So, is it possible for women to ‘opt-out’ of appearance politics in the workplace? Or should we feel resigned to the facts of life, and ‘play the game?’

Well, the answer is nuanced. Prisk explains that “women should not wear makeup because they feel that it’s societal pressure, but because they choose to for their own reasons. And those who choose not to should not suffer in any way for their choice. It’s about freedom of choice and freedom of expression.”

In an ideal world, of course, this is the case – but any professional woman can vouch for the fact that we don’t live in an ideal world.

While it may not be possible to dismantle the system of sexism in the workplace one makeup-free day at a time, even thinking critically about the aesthetic decisions we make for the office is a step in the right direction.

Furaini adds that “the preoccupation with grooming and appearance isn’t some frivolous concern. It’s a fundamental aspect of the structural inequities that plague not just workplaces but society at large.

“As we move into a future where we hope ‘workplace normal’ is a far more equitable term, we should be critiquing, not conforming to, these dated norms.”

 


The takeaway

The difference between how male and female appearance is scrutinised in the workplace is clear – and it’s symptomatic of the disparity between genders in the workplace more broadly.

For professional women, though, it can be of both financial and psychological benefit to adhere to the office’s grooming norms. However, as we look to the future, unpacking the presumptions of female grooming could be the key to a real societal change.

Elmi believes a shift of focus towards feeling, rather than looking, good is essential. She explains that she encourages her team to “lead healthy lives and come to work feeling confident and true to themselves, whether they wear makeup or not. When they do this, their work reflects their authenticity, and they are recognised and rewarded for it.”

The onus shouldn’t be on individuals to bring the changes though. As Prisk explains, “we should all be supporting this freedom of expression and choice in order to allow women to feel confident enough to opt out of appearance politics, but also to live in a world where they don’t exist.”

 

Meet The Experts

Tara Furiani is a Podcast & YouTube Host, International Keynote Speaker & CPO Consultant at Not the HR Lady.

 

Durana Elmi is the COO of the leading wellness brand Cymbiotika.

 

Nina Prisk RGN, INP, BSc, MSc, is an aesthetic nurse prescriber and owner of Update Aesthetics Cosmetic Clinics, both in London’s Harley Street and Cornwall. Prisk is a lecturer and ambassador for global industry brands and advocates for the importance of a multi-faceted regime that incorporates both injectables and skincare products.

 

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Freelance Beauty Writer

Annie Walton Doyle is a journalist based in Manchester, UK. For over ten years, she's worked within the beauty industry, writing for publications like Bustle and Hello Giggles about skincare, makeup, fragrance, and more. When not writing, she enjoys knitting, weird books, nature, and mysteries.

Expertise: Makeup, nails
Education: Goldsmiths, University of London
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