Is it necessary for women to sport red lipstick and high heels to be heard in the boardroom?

Women are constantly told how they should look when working and their shoes should match their blouses. But female entrepreneurs believe brains should come before beauty

Is it necessary for women to sport red lipstick and high heels to be heard in the boardroom?

Movements like #MeToo have been pivotal in shinning a light at the sexism and discrimination women face. But it seems as if some companies haven’t go the memo to stop focusing on women’s appearance.

For instance, PwC, the professional services network, was recently in the headlines for all the wrong reasons after forcing a female employee named Nicola Thorpe to wear high heels. After Thorpe went public in January 2017, a petition to fine sexist dress codes was signed by 150,000 people.

The ban was initially rejected. But in May 2018 the government’s equalities office published a guidance for employers stating that it’ll be illegal to force female staff to wear high heels, makeup, hair of a particular style or revealing clothing.

And Thorpe isn’t the only one. When the BBC asked women for first hand experiences and comments about sexist dress codes, women shared anecdotes about employees being forced to have a spray tan and a manicure before clocked in at work.

And it’s not just men who are controlling female employee’s appearance. For instance, Lindsey Lohan, actress turned businesswoman with a string hotels in Greece sent threatening comments to fire her female staff due to mismatched shoes.

Given how companies are still struggling to accomplish gender diversity at the top it’s surprising when head honchos focus on looks over abilities. “You could be brilliant at your job, a born leader and total genius but it’s unnoticed if you dress inappropriately,” Gina Hutchings, founder of The Treatment Tester, the aesthetics marketing company, told Elite Business. “Women face more scrutiny than men as we are often compared to male counterparts.” Women might be running the biggest of companies but Hutchings believes they’re subjected to judgment about they way they look more than men.

Although, men also face condemnation for their appearance. As an example, British Airways recently fired a male employee for having a man bun.

Still, Helen Ross, a former model and founder of  HRP Equestrian, the saddle pad design company, told Elite Business that it’s still worse for women. “I believe there is a double standard between what is socially acceptable for women and men,” said Ross. “Men get off lightly, they don’t have to wear heels to be considered more professional, they can [just] wear a smart suit.”

However, Hutchings believes there is a bright side. “We women have an added advantage over men. We have make up, clothing, hair styling and more to dress ourselves for success,” she explained. “I don’t feel we should dress to impress but all women should consider the message they [send with] their attire.”

And it’s hardly a secret why women get the brunt of the sexist dress codes and lookism in general. “We still live in a male dominated work environment and women are under constant pressure to prove themselves,” said Jonquille Chantrey, cosmetic surgeon at dr.jonquille, a cosmetic surgery firm, said a large portion of her clientele entail business women, when speaking to Elite Business.

But it’s not just clothing women have to worry about. In some cases the constant criticism women face about their appearance forces them to resort to cosmetic surgeries. “They are already confident women but does it help to boost their confidence? I would say yes,” she said. And it seems to work with women who’ve had a nose job being more likely to be successful at work, according to a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study. Moreover, a study by Cosmetic Surgery Solicitors, a law firm, 20% of women considered getting a cosmetic surgery to boost their career. 

However, not all agree that going under the knife is the best solution. “Visiting a surgeon isn’t necessarily going to fix a female’s confidence,” said Carolyn Radford, CEO of Mansfield Town FC, a football club, when speaking with Elite Business. “If a nose job is going to make you feel better and bothers you every waking hour then of course it may make you feel better but self confidence comes from within and not by having perfect features.”

Ironically, being too attractive doesn’t always work in your favour. Hence Silicon Valley CEO Eileen Carey did just the opposite to attract less sexual attention. She dyed her blonde hair brown and ditched her contact lenses to be taken seriously by VCs, she told the BBC. This was true even when women were strutting into boardrooms. “I was faced with sexism and had to work hard to change some people’s preconceived opinions of a blonde bimbo who wore fancy frocks to the boardroom, despite having a degree in politics,” Radford said. “In an attempt to fit in and gain acceptance I changed my dress code to dark colours and wore a mixture of trouser suits and blouses, toning down my overall look.”

Clearly beauty bias still exist in the corporate world but the question is if entrepreneurs should look beyond looks when making business. “Appearance is important but in no way should affect business or capability, neither should it be a requirement of an employee,” Radford concludes.

Varsha Saraogi
Varsha Saraogi

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