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Of course, beautiful women are seen as 'vain' and 'vacuous' in business - they can't win

Do women only get ahead and find themselves deemed 'acceptable' in the boardroom based on their looks?
Do women only get ahead and find themselves deemed 'acceptable' in the boardroom based on their looks? Credit: Andrew Crowley 

Beauty in the Boardroom: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The MD who told their senior manager that their jacket was "too pink" for them to be taken seriously. The CEO who booked a top hairdresser and instructed them to give his director "boardroom hair’" The tech leader who shared a picture of stilettos at a conference with the hashtag #NoBrainsRequired.

Even in 2019, I don’t need to specify the genders in these real-life anecdotes because the story has been the same as long as women have been in the workforce. For women in the workplace, appearance is king.

That's the point Clarissa Farr, the retired high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School, made this weekend, when she told a newspaper that beauty helps further women's careers in the boardroom.

"There are certain woman whose personal beauty makes their leadership acceptable who wouldn't be able to hold the sway they do if they didn't look the way they do," she said, citing examples including Sheryl Sandberg and Helena Morrissey. "Unfortunately, beauty is part of successful leadership for women in a way it shouldn't be.”

Not only are women often judged on their competency for the role by the way they present themselves, but frankly, they can’t win

If they are "too attractive", they are seen as "vain" or "vacuous" or trading on their looks to get ahead. If they aren’t polished enough, they lack leadership "presence", "gravitas" or just need to make more of an effort.

Clarissa Farr has said that women still need to be beautiful to get ahead in the boardroom Credit: Jeff Gilbert

And these double standards extend beyond appearance. Whereas men are "bold" and "decisive", women are "abrasive" or "bossy". Quiet men are "thinkers" and "gurus", whereas women are "wallflowers" who may be overwhelmed.

This gender asymmetry pervades all aspects of the office, from language to the talent pipeline. Where’s the evidence for this? The Chartered Management Institute (CMI), where I am CEO, did our own research and found that four in five women have witnessed gender-biased remarks in their workplace, and 50 per cent had witnessed gender bias in recruitment and promotion decisions.

Management consulting firm McKinsey found that microaggressions, or everyday sexism - ranging from demeaning language to mistakenly assuming a colleague to be more junior than they are - are a workplace reality for two thirds of women. You only have to look at how high-profile female politicians are treated. Our last Prime Minister was called out for her shoes, leather trousers and dance moves, while a colleague famously said of one female Minister, “the only thing she knows how to do well is a blow dry.” These incidents serve to remind us that we still reside in a man’s world.

Clarissa Farr summed it up perfectly: “Appearance is part of a system of approval, through which men let women succeed.” She stressed this may be unconscious rather than malicious, but made the point that throughout history, in life and literature, women are looked at and men do the looking.

Do men face the same issues around appearance? To be fair, there is research which suggests that male CEOs and business leaders are more likely to be taller and more attractive than average. But more often than not, male shortfalls are accepted as just "part of their personal brand" and frankly, it doesn’t seem to be holding them back: they still take up 90 per cent plus of all leadership roles, leaving women in the single digits.

In this lose-lose situation, I don’t believe women alone can bring about a solution (not without being labelled "pushy" anyway). We need to normalise women in leadership positions. Organisations need to seek out and develop extraordinary female leaders, so that women in positions of power are just as prevalent as men.

The next generation wants to see diversity as the norm. This means women will see role models of all appearances in positions they can set their sights on. Men will associate even less with archaic cultures and take an active role in family life outside work. All will benefit.

Those who still dispense unwanted advice based on appearance will rapidly find they receive short shrift. Until we see the number of women in leadership positions increase, we will struggle to grasp that women look all sorts of ways, and behave in all sorts of ways. Crucially, we’ll miss that they can also succeed in all sorts of ways. Just like men - who'd have thought it?

Ann Francke’s book, Create a Gender-balanced Workplace, will be published by Penguin Business on 26 September 2019.