Appearance at Work: Who Wears the Load?

Can we please just talk about my hair for a minute?

This month’s theme is Balancing the Juggle (Men and Women) and I’d like to begin the month talking about appearance at work, or, my hair.  See, I got a Mohawk in April (wonderful work by Crystal Tesinsky at Azura´ Studio in Bend, OR).  I was seeking something fresh and dynamic for my role as emcee/host for TEDxBend. To go alongside my new haircut, I wore a pair of loud, red, Fly London™ shoes. My fashion choices (my drag, as Judith Butler calls it) were for me. It felt like a bold move from feeling middle-aged and frumpy to feeling more dynamic and current. My garb boosted my confidence, but I also worked hard to be a good emcee. In the various discussion sessions after the speakers and performers, my hair and my shoes were the most talked about aspect of my performance.

I rock(ed) the Mohawk, but it isn’t always easy.

After a much closer second cut , I found myself out of my comfort zone.  I went to Baltimore for a client gig last week. On the flight I kept rubbing my scalp wondering how it would feel to the client to have me show up looking so…different. On the plane I thought about how the shave shows the gray, which ages me, and changes my color palette. And hair so short requires a different neckline and earrings. And I am a few pounds overweight, does the hair make that worse?

Remaining confident about by daily performance is a slippery slope of energy and focus. My recent change in hair style reminds me that the world is quite different for men and for women when it comes to appearances at work.

Hear me out: the men I work with hardly ever (if never) talk about or seem to spend any time at all on their hair. Or, for that matter, their outfits, their make-up, or their accessories.  I mean, I know they do the basics to look clean and put-together at work, but compared to the herculean amount of time I, and other women like me, put into how we look for work, the energy men spend is miniscule.  Note: I am low maintenance and I often head off to work in jeans or sweats, hair a-muss and wearing no make-up knowing that those I see will be happy for the work I do and not focus on my appearance. At least that is what I do when I don’t have presentations and meetings.  But I find myself spending inordinate amounts of time and energy on things like my hairstyle that I could be spending on things like business.

Google “women and appearance at work” and you will get hundreds of articles in the last decade that observe or reinforce the mixed messages for women and their appearance at work. Be pretty, but don’t be too pretty. Wear fashionable clothes, but don’t be too sexy or feminine. Don’t get fat, but don’t be skinny or too fit, either. Whiten your teeth. And despite all this attention that is placed on appearance, make sure you focus on your accomplishments.

Ugh.

At age 54, I find myself confounded. I don’t want to obsess about my haircut. I just want to get to work. It’s what I do and I do it well. But my appearance at work matters for a whole host of reasons, as does my weight, my make-up, and my wardrobe selection. But whether I want it to or not, my appearance matters more for me than for men like me—middle-aged and experienced consultants working with Senior Leaders.

I am not writing this to blame anyone for being sexist. Rather, I am keenly aware of the enculturated bias that I unconsciously feed when I focus so much energy on how I look. I am double bound, though. If I refuse to feed-in by reducing the energy I spend of my appearance I will no longer be invited or accepted into the circles where these issues bear out: the offices of Senior Teams and Leaders. Fortunately, I don’t face this imbalance alone: many, if not all, women work in arenas where their appearance at work is unequally weighted across gender. So, much like the children’s story “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” this is an obstacle “that we can’t go over and we can’t go under, so we’ve got to go through”. The only way out is to stand in the muck and label the unequal importance of appearance for men and for women when we see it.

Additionally, we women ought to right-level our efforts towards how we look at work with how hard and well we work so that we stop unwittingly contributing to societal expectations that say that it is more important for us to look a certain way than it is for our male colleagues. And relatedly, when ought to call out men who come to work messy or unkempt or have body odor or anything else that signals a lack of care in appearance at work. We should give them the feedback we have: “Sir, your appearance belies a lack of care or professionalism. No need to go over the top, but tend to the basics.”

This next decade I plan to get it right: just enough effort on appearance to feel confident and like me. Not an ounce more.

Moe Carrick