I’ve never been big on makeup. Just a little eyeliner and eyeshadow, a touch of concealer and lip gloss. While that might not be the best option for every scenario, it actually might be doing me a huge favor when it comes to others seeing me as a leader.
Less might really be more
In a study from Albertay University, researchers had models apply makeup on their own as if they were preparing for a social night out. They also had a trained makeup artist prepare the same kind of look on the models. They then used computer software to manipulate the faces and adjust the amount of makeup in the images. Finally, 150 men and women were asked to compare image pairs in terms of perceived leadership ability. One image had no makeup, while the other image did have makeup.
Regardless of whether the makeup was applied by the wearer or the artist, the researchers found that participants of any gender and race were less likely to identify faces with heavy makeup as the faces of leaders. Makeup scaled back by roughly 50 percent sometimes had a positive effect, but not more significant than chance.
The result is clear, the why, not so much
Previous research has suggested that dolling up a little actually can enhance how dominant a woman looks. But according to Dr. Christopher Watkins, leader of the study, the new work suggests that makeup doesn’t enhance that perceived dominance by benefitting how others evaluate a woman in a leadership position.
Unpacking why won’t be easy, either. It could be, for example, that at a certain point, we associate makeup with superficiality. Good leaders generally are seen as grounded deep thinkers, not individuals swayed by the stuff around them. Then there’s the relatable factor. We project ourselves on others, and this affects what we think a good leader should look like. Maybe if we see a “flawless” woman, we won’t want to follow her because she’s “not like us”. Or perhaps we believe that, while women should practice self-care, women who take too much time and effort on themselves won’t consider others as well. Or perhaps we even subconsciously look for flaws in a woman’s face as some sign that she’s weathered storms and gained the experience great leadership requires. Maybe we associate makeup with sexualization so much that we can't see a seriously glammed up lady as the one serious or prepared enough for the job. We need more studies to figure out what all goes into the mix. And that’s just for one culture, one context.
But for now, the tentative message to women probably should be this
Women have nearly countless hurdles when it comes to business and general equality. Trying to literally paint an image every day shouldn’t be one of them. And in an era where authenticity is prized in virtually every office, you actually might fare better if you give yourself a break, show who you really are and go for a more natural approach. In fact, as movements like #metoo gain footing, there's already a growing trend toward less or no makeup in the workplace. If you can’t back it off without feeling anxious, face the why behind that. Aim to get to the point where you feel and behave confidently no matter what look you go for, and if you feel like someone is judging you, don’t perpetuate the status quo with silence. Now more than ever, this is your time to speak up.