In an effort to get taken seriously as a young female CEO, Eileen Carey dyed her blonde hair brown, switched to more androgynous clothing and ditched contacts for thick-frame glasses.
Carey told the BBC that to be successful in tech, “I'd like to draw as little attention as possible, especially in any sort of sexual way.”
While Carey’s change in appearance was dramatic, aspects of her story echo the decisions of women across sectors and other demographics.
Research from Harvard Medical School shows that based only on appearance, people evaluate your competence and trustworthiness in a quarter of a second. For women who face other biases surrounding their age, race, or gender presentation, this adds another level of complexity to achieving coveted “executive presence”.
The following three women shared their perspectives on their appearance and professional credibility.
Since a woman’s youthful appearance is both valued and fetishized in our culture, many young professional women change their appearances in the hope that they’ll be seen for their substance rather than their sexuality.
Alternatively, bar owner Polly Watts says, “Once you hit 40 and 50 [years-old], it flips. To avoid being thought of as someone's mother, it helps to bring the pretty back.”
Watts dyed her hair platinum blonde when she turned 50 and began wearing lower cut, sexier clothes. Unlike when she was younger, the attention she gets now isn't negative or dismissive. Instead, as an older woman, “bringing the pretty back” helps her be seen.
For women of color, unconscious bias and a lack of cultural understanding can make it even more complicated to navigate assumptions and expectations based on appearance.
Victoria Adams Phipps, a black woman who works with millennial entrepreneurs, says “Appearance is something I’m constantly considering.”
There’s a tension between her identities as a black woman, an expert who supports young entrepreneurs, and a credible professional who works closely with business leaders.
While young entrepreneurs expect Adams Phipps to be edgier in her style, she says “If I’m meeting with a Fortune 500 CEO, that probably won’t be a week I get my hair braided.” From her hairstyle to her manicure color to her clothes, she’s constantly vigilant about what perceptions people will have based on her appearance.
Even if half the city is rocking sports paraphernalia on game day, when she wears her team’s garb, “People tend to assume I’m a certain type of black woman. And if I’m wearing a power suit people make other assumptions about what kind of black woman I am.”
Adams Phipps recognizes that she can never fully know how much her appearance changes a situation, but she has seen it impact her effectiveness or lack thereof with business leaders.
“As a woman, and especially a woman of color, I have to be a chameleon,” she says. For her, it’s not just about changing her attire, appearance, and speech. “It’s about making the other person feel comfortable and like I belong in that group.” Unfortunately, she says, “To truly be successful, that sort of constant vigilance and transformation becomes a requirement.
Gender Identity and Presentation
While you might anticipate frustration and a whole new set of biases for women who aren’t particularly feminine in their appearance, one woman I spoke with sees gender fluidity as an advantage. Liz Shephard, an entrepreneur, considers her style androgynous or slightly masculine.
Shephard identifies along a spectrum of both sexuality and gender. She recognizes ways to play with that fluidity and adjust her appearance depending on her audience and use it to her advantage.
When meeting with older or more conservative men, she says, “I dress more femininely, because I know it will make them more comfortable.” Similarly, if she were meeting someone in the lesbian community, she’d dress more masculinely. For her, it’s never a dramatic shift.
“I don’t want it to be about what I’m wearing. I want to get the work done. But if what I'm wearing helps me get the work done, then I’m gonna make that choice,” Shephard says.
For Shephard and many others, what she feels confident and comfortable it is just as important as how she’s going to be perceived.
Whether we’re dealing with investors, managers, or clients, people will be making judgments based on our appearance. It’s up to us how much we’re willing to contort ourselves or adapt our identities around those expectations.
As Jamie Broussard, a nonprofit professional said of Carey’s transformation, “Good for her for taking control, but the fact that she had to do that makes me so sad.”