Looks don’t matter.
At least, that’s the gigantic lie we tell our kids, and perhaps ourselves, in an effort to seem just and fair. It’s one of those sentiments that should be true but, despite our wishes, simply is not.
According to a range of studies, it takes anywhere from three to seven seconds to make an impression – clearly not enough time to discuss anything of value. The alternative is to dazzle people with your looks and the research tells us that good-lookers not only make good impressions but they also make more money and get ahead at work.
I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that if you want a job, you need to look the part. You wouldn’t trust a doctor with egg on his tie and his glasses falling off his head, so why trust a lawyer with a shapeless suit, and badly bitten nails?
Politicians especially fall prey to quick judgments when it comes to their appearances, whether they are fat or thin, sporting Dior or Members Only jackets. That goes double for women. Just ask Hillary Clinton about the regular pillorying she took about her hair, her makeup, her pantsuits and her wrinkles.
So asking whether appearances are more important for women than men when it comes to career advancement takes some guts, because no one really wants to confront this particular elephant in the room.
However, one brave research company recently asked that very question. While you could anticipate the general response, the perception of a double standard between women and men was nothing short of astonishing.
A whopping 90 per cent of the 501 female business leaders polled by Ipsos-Reid on behalf of Toronto-based recruiting agency Randstad Canada felt that overall image affects a women’s career progression, while just 37 per cent believe it has the same impact on men.
“The reality is, if you have the skills, and are willing to fight, you can push through these vain boundaries, but it is a fight – don’t kid yourselves,” said Gina Ibghy, chief people officer at Randstad Canada.
“Judgment regarding a woman’s appearance is a societal issue. It is a difficult subject to address directly but by telling women to value the work they do, over how other people perceive their appearance, is a good start,” Ms. Ibghy said.
How do we balance the disproportionate impact that appearance has on women? One option is to even the score. If we can’t get society to give women a break, let’s raise the bar for businessmen and place them on the same cosmetic and sartorial hot seat. Forget suits and shirts in boring shades of blue, grey and navy. It’s time for them to take out their copy of GQ and make a statement about who they are and what they are capable of.
It’s not only about the suit, but the hair, the nails, and naturally, the shoes. And don’t forget the makeup.
I’ve known men who were lured into this clandestine world with just the slightest hint of foundation and powder during a TV appearance. Once initiated, they were hooked and never looked back.
And think of the greater societal good. If we can make men as insecure and dependent on the shallow perceptions of good looks, there may be no end to the spinoff industries catering to the neo-dandy, which would positively serve our economy.
Fashion designers could start creating ready-to-wear men’s suits that each season radically alters the lapel widths, button configurations and fabric patterns so that men feel constant pressure to keep up.
Cosmetic companies could come out with makeup lines for the professional man. There could be secret sessions at the office where male executives are taught how to apply makeup and get advice about which designers can make them look more powerful, commanding and competent.
And don’t forget the trend piece, that “must have” item that changes faster than the weather forecast. Each season, there needs to be one item – a man-scarf, tie pin or ascot – that must be worn. After three months, it becomes obsolete, at which point it must languish in the back of the closet until it’s truly out of style and then donated to charity.
A casual glance of male business leaders and politicians tells us that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that can be gathered for this particular harvest. Perhaps that will excuse my initial thought after learning that Angela Ahrendts, former Burberry chief executive officer, was moving to Apple – that maybe she’ll bring some style to its fashion-challenged leadership.
If we, as a society, could decide that appearances were equally important to men as to women, that would be an important step in levelling the playing field at work. Trust me, guys, you won’t regret the move. Consider it progress.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org