ON a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your own looks? Being the self-deprecating kind that we Irish are, it’s unlikely we’d score ourselves very highly.
However, according to author and former JP Morgan banker Michelle Miller, if we want to be taken seriously in work, we should be aiming to score around a seven out of 10 in the aesthetic department.
Miller’s interactions with men in her former profession has led her to develop a theory that women should neither be too threateningly beautiful nor too dowdy in appearance in the workplace, and that being a solid seven means it’s easier to climb the career ladder.
Miller thinks that certain types of women are still discriminated against in work, and it’s those that fall either side of the seven range.
“Unattractive women... are either forgotten or ignored,” she writes.
“And really hot women... are either treated like a liability or have all of their accomplishments diminished.”
Miller is of course making the argument that, like Goldilocks, certain male-dominated industries want their female employees to be just right – not too distractingly beautiful, but not plain either — because to them, appearances do matter.
Miller doesn’t believe she’s being anti-feminist; she says she’s just telling it as it is.
A recent advert for BIC pens in South Africa went viral when it urged consumers to “Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a boss”.
People were outraged at the implication that women in the workplace must assume masculine traits while capitalising on their girlish femininity.
But is there truth in any of this? Even in professions with a more even gender divide, are women placed under greater scrutiny than their male colleagues, and should they be aspiring to look young and beautiful in order to succeed?
We live in an era where selfies are de rigeur and LinkedIn profile pictures part and parcel of the job hunt, but how much do looks really matter?
For me, there’s a fine line. I work in an industry where my face is often plastered next to a piece I’ve written, or where I have to go on television or have my picture taken as a matter of course.
I might have a more visible career than most, but I’ve never felt my looks helped or hindered my work as a journalist – at least no more than any male in the profession.
I certainly haven’t been afforded any opportunities I didn’t deserve because of my appearance. What matters is the writing on the page, and my enthusiasm, willingness and ability to tackle an issue or task.
As a freelancer, most of my work is conducted over the phone or via email when I’m make-up free and wearing sweatpants.
However if I’m meeting an associate or working in an office, I will absolutely make an effort to be groomed and presentable because that’s basic good manners.
More than that, I’m simply at my best self when I feel good about myself, and of course aesthetics are part of the confidence package, regardless of a person’s gender.
That said, when your business is style, surely you should emulate it? If you’re selling a product that is meant to make you look and thus feel better, it must make sense to look the part yourself.
Looks matter, but...
“I’m in the fashion industry, so in my business it’s important to be well-groomed,” says Katie Jane Gold, 31, owner of Gold Fever hair extensions.“
In my opinion, if a person puts the effort into how they look and what they are wearing, it makes them feel better about themselves, therefore they’re happier and more productive in the workplace.”
However for Katie, it’s not about conforming to a young and beautiful ideal.
“I don’t worry about ageing in this industry. I used to be worried that people wouldn’t respect my opinion because I was younger than a lot of my peers. So now as I get older I actually feel more confident. I have more life experience, and that is really what business is all about, not how you look.”
Let’s start with self-belief
For RTE television production assistant Emma Keaveney, 28, it’s taken time in that particular industry to realise how little her appearance matters when measured against her hard work.
“Despite the popular idea that TV work is a very glamorous, I’ve definitely started dressing a lot more casually since my first job, and I think I worry less about my looks too.
I remember turning up for work on my first day at a film production company wearing heels and a skirt suit, and by day three I was in jeans and Converse.
In my experience, it’s an industry that respects straight talking, and there isn’t a lot of tolerance for those who don’t deliver on their work.”
However for Emma, the idea that we should aspire to dwell between two parameters is absurd.
“Women have enough sexist rubbish to contend with in negotiating their lives without piling on the idea of hitting a safe, non-threatening middle ground in the looks department.
"The idea that plain women are unwanted and beautiful women are distracting is pandering to constricting male standards of female beauty.
“While some industries are predominantly male, we simply can’t give such chauvinistic notions credence, and if we want that change to actually come about in the workplace then we need to really believe it ourselves.”
What you wear is a choice
Jessica Moore, 29, is a science teacher. She says that the men and women in her school are equally laid back when it comes to appearance.
“Of the female population, there is a higher percentage that put an effort in when it comes to looks, but I think those ladies are the type that have always put that level in to their appearance, as opposed to doing it as a result of feeling the need to.
"I like going to work some days with a little make-up and a nice dress, but it’s great that other days I can go in with a messy bun and nice trousers with a cardigan and nobody will think any less of me at all.”
Confidence is the key
PR professional Sonia Harris has witnessed exactly what Miller is talking about in action.
“I can recall many occasions when people have been judged solely on their looks or body and not their body of work.
"I’ve sat in on interviews where comments have been made specifically about a woman’s weight or hair, or even calves, and I’ve witnessed situations where good looks have essentially backfired on a person.
“In addition to being judged for not being attractive enough, there have been numerous instances where I’ve seen women judged for being ‘too attractive’ to hold their position in a company.
"One might assume that these comments come from men but women can be equally, if not more, critical of other women in some cases.”
Sonia doesn’t think looks should make a difference at all where work is concerned, but understands that they do to a degree.
“A work day can be difficult enough without having to worry about how you’re being perceived because of your physical appearance.
"I understand that all people should make an effort for work, men and women alike, and that finding a balance between “looking good” and being comfortable is key to making one feel more relaxed and confident — this can go miles in the boardroom.”
For Sonia, being bright and colourful boosts her confidence.
“I was recently called “the brightest-dressed woman in PR” by a client due to my fondness for colour, and I took that as a compliment.
"One day I could be in a boardroom with company directors and another in a field on a shoot, so I think it’s more important to dress for the occasion.”
Malwina King works as a director at leading recruitment company Sigmar.
“In this day and age, thankfully, it’s our skills, personality and attitude that matter the most in getting our dream jobs.
“However, it’s wise to remember that people are people, and whether it’s intentional or subconscious, we do make some judgement on appearance.
"Research shows that the first 10 to 40 seconds of meeting someone is the most crucial, as people instinctively form an opinion from their first impression.
“In terms of recruitment and the interview process, looks — understood as presentation — do matter.
“Candidates looking professional show respect for the interviewer and the business that they are hoping to be a part of and represent in the future.
"Not only does dressing well convey a better image to others, you’ll have a better self-image too. When you dress up, you tend to stand straighter and project more confidence, which people will respond to positively.
“I can imagine that occupations like a model or an actor would be in a different category when it comes to looks, but for majority of us, appearance understood as beauty doesn’t influence the recruitment decisions of hiring managers.”