From The Straits Times    |

Credit: Showbit

For many women, the morning ritual before heading to work includes some form of makeup application. Whether it’s a subtle touch-up with concealer and lip balm or the full works complete with foundation and blush, many of us alter our appearance in some way to look more well-groomed and put-together in the workplace.

Of course, makeup can be a tool of empowerment, a form of self-expression, and a means to boost self-confidence. Yet, it’s hard to ignore the delicate balance between personal choice and societal expectations. As much as we want to believe that our choices around makeup are influenced only by our personal style, there’s no denying that many of us also face internal and external pressures to look a certain way in professional settings, especially when compared to our male counterparts.

A 2016 study of over 14,000 employees by sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner found that women who were deemed “well-groomed” tended to earn higher salaries compared to those who opted not to wear makeup in the workplace. In contrast, grooming choices had a minimal influence on the salaries of male employees.

Sarah Seow, a 22-year-old barista, recalls a conversation between herself and her manager just a week into her first job: “She approached me after a long and difficult shift, and suggested that customers might be more patient and friendlier towards me if I put in more effort into my appearance.” Sarah disagreed with the notion of being treated differently based on the way she looked and decided not to conform to this request. Even so, she probed further into her manager’s comments.

When questioned, her manager explained that her other female colleagues who wore full faces of makeup to work appeared more presentable, and as a result, were treated better by customers. “I just thought that was a ridiculous comment, as some of my male colleagues at the time looked like they didn’t even bother brushing their hair before work,” says Sarah, who ultimately quit only three months in, after she noticed that she consistently received fewer shifts than her co-workers.

Better grooming does not always equate success

As one might expect, women working in client-facing industries often encounter comparable pressures. Lydia Patrick, now 30 years old, recalls her entry into an Italian design firm as a regional sales representative, a role she undertook when she was 26. A key part of her job role involved extensive global travel and interactions with clients who were predominantly successful business owners in their 40s and 50s.

Though Lydia initially chose a more subtle and understated makeup approach, the demands of her role soon prompted a transformation in her daily routine. “When I wore less makeup, I appeared younger and less polished, and my potential clients did not take me as seriously as they did my older colleagues,” Lydia recounts. “This often led to them excluding me from conversations, especially when my other co-workers were present.”

Although no one within her team explicitly requested for her to alter her appearance, Lydia soon learnt that in order to succeed in her new role, she had to change the way she was perceived. “In my line of work, appearing put-together and seasoned is a necessity, and makeup provided me with a means to achieve that,” she explains.

Beyond the desire to appear more professional, many women consciously choose to wear makeup in the workplace, viewing it as a means of self-care and self-expression. Vanessa Gunaseran, a 41-year-old social worker, shares that her morning makeup ritual is one of the best moments of her day. “Given the long hours and often highly stressful situations I encounter in my job, I consider my morning routine to be one of the rare moments when I can actually focus on myself,” she says, sharing that she willingly gets up earlier in the morning in order to complete a full face of makeup.

Even so, Vanessa also recounts an incident that underscores the complexities surrounding makeup in the workplace. She recalls a rather awkward encounter involving one of her male superiors, who decided to make unsolicited comparisons between her appearance and that of her female colleagues during a team meeting. “During the meeting, he essentially reprimanded the other women for ‘not putting in as much effort’ into their appearance as I did for work.”

In response to his comments, Vanessa chose to speak to her boss privately after the meeting to explain why his remarks were inappropriate. “Our job is emotionally taxing, and at times, physically gruelling,” she says. “Expecting my already exhausted teammates to meet a superficial appearance standard felt unfair and entirely unnecessary.”

Ann Patricia, a 34-year-old creative producer, also faces similar unsolicited comments at work about her appearance. “When I wear makeup to work, I feel great about myself, and I think I present myself as more confident and put-together,” she says. “On good days, I might even try out a different style of makeup and sometimes, I get positive comments from colleagues.”

However, on days when she experiences eczema flare-ups, she is physically unable to apply makeup on her sensitive, irritated skin without discomfort. “During flare-ups, I already feel extremely conscious about my skin, and I feel that going makeup-free makes me appear sloppy or unkempt, even though I’m not,” she shares.

“To top it off, my colleagues would comment on the way I look, asking if I’m unwell or tired.” Ann ends off by saying that she’d prefer for her colleagues to focus on her work contributions instead of her appearance. However, she admits to never addressing these comments directly because she’s concerned about being labelled as difficult or overly sensitive.

Appearances should not become a KPI

As women continue marking their mark in various industries, it’s essential that we recognise the importance of choice, inclusivity, and self-expression when it comes to personal grooming. While it may play a bigger role in certain positions, someone’s appearance should never be the key factor in determining one’s capabilities.

As Putri Shah, a 46-year-old HR Manager for a biotech company, succinctly sums it up: “An employee’s makeup should have little bearing on our perception of their suitability for a role.”

“The employee should be assessed based on how much they value-add based on their experience, skills, knowledge and personality,” she continues, saying that this is the best way to foster a workplace culture that is inclusive and diverse, while promoting fairness.

Putri further explains that her company conducts annual mandatory “Unconscious Bias” training sessions aimed at helping employees recognise their own inherent biases around factors such as gender, race, and appearance.

So what can women do when dealing with colleagues who can’t help making appearance-based comments in the workplace? Start by politely but firmly setting boundaries to let your colleagues know how their comments affect you.

“We have seen instances where people don’t realise the weight of their offhand remarks and a direct conversation can help bring this to light,” says Putri. However, if the comments persist or even worsen, Putri suggests documenting the remarks and escalating the matter to HR.

Above all, it’s crucial to acknowledge the double standards women encounter when it comes to looking “presentable” at work. Recognising and addressing these disparities can make a significant difference, not only in advocating for yourself but also in supporting female colleagues and subordinates.

While it may take some time for us to see equal grooming standards for women and men at work, we can make a difference by speaking out against biases where necessary, helping to create a more inclusive workplace.