‘Legally Blonde’; Why is appearance still affecting women at work?

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Hitting the headlines this month, Silicon Valley CEO, Eileen Carey, shared her experience of discrimination in the workplace. Stating that she had changed her appearance in order to be taken more seriously, Carey wrote, “I was told [that in order] to raise funds for Glassbreakers, that it would be to my benefit to dye my hair brown, because there was a stronger pattern of recognition of brunette women CEO’s”.

Although shocking for a high-level woman to encounter, Carey isn’t alone in her experience, in fact, the infantilization of blonde-haired women has spawned phrases and jokes centred around a “dumb blonde” trope. So much so that an entire film franchise was built upon it, in Legally Blonde. Whilst a 2009 survey found that one in three female employees with light hair were adopting a “more somber shade.”

Carey’s appearance changes didn’t stop at her hair however, as she admitted to swapping out her contact lenses for glasses and employing an androgynous wardrobe for work. These changes come after a long history of women changing their appearance in order to be taken seriously. Popularised in the 80’s, through films such as Working Girl, the ‘powersuit’ became a way for women to exert their professional prowess. As Francesca Stravakapolou, University of Exeter professor, states however, when has a man ever been described as power dressing? “By virtue of being a man, he is already powerful”.

Along with these difficulties is the suggestion that women only have a very small window, in which their appearance doesn’t have a detrimental effect, on the way in which they’re seen within the work environment. With younger women not taken seriously, whilst those over the age of fifty are labeled as battleaxes or ball busters. The most famous example of which would be Karren Brady who as a 23-year-old MD at Birmingham City Football Club, was disrespected by members of her own squad.

“I can see your tits in that top.” To which, she replied: “Well, don’t worry – when I sell you to Crewe, you won’t be able to see them from there.”

A survey conducted by Stylist Magazine, found that the extent of such comments was much higher than expected, with over 1/3rd of women stating they’d had their appearance commented on whilst at work. These events aren’t just irritating but could actually be having a drastic effect on female career progression, with women being judged much more harshly when it comes to external factors, like outfits and hairstyles.

Whilst unkempt attire was found to detract from men’s executive presence by 76%, that number jumped drastically when it came to women, at 83%. With the factors affecting what was seen as unkempt, changing too. So whilst men were judged on cleanliness, women were also expected to employ “tasteful accessories”, a fashionable hairstyle and a manicure.

As businesses, it’s important that we counteract such negative ideas regarding appearance, with clear and concise anti-discrimination policies in place and remember that even if blondes do have more fun, they could also be the best worker on your team.