Do you tone down your looks to be taken seriously at work?

This week I read about Eileen Carey, CEO and co-founder of Glass-breakers, a silicon Valley-based software company, who dyes her blonde hair brown so that her co-workers will take her more seriously.  By dying her hair brown, she found that she looked older and felt that she was less likely to be seen and characterised in a sexual way.  She stopped wearing high heals, stopped wearing contact lenses in favour of glasses and started wearing gender neutral clothing.  She found that her colleagues started to take her more seriously.

When I was young I believed that opportunity would be doled out equally.  I believed that if I worked hard for something I would get it.  I believed that people would listen to me and respect me, blind to my looks, my colour or my gender.  As I have grown older I have realised that this is manifestly not true.  In fact, as I grow older and the examples of discrimination, sexism, racism and misogyny stack up in my consciousness I am increasingly aware of how naïve I was and of the mountains that are left to climb. 

Eileen Carey

Why is it that we women have to trick the world into taking us seriously?

I think this prejudice is particularly acute against young, fertile women.  I have found that as I have grown older, although the examples of seemingly unconscious bias still occur almost daily, it has gradually got easier.  I am gradually getting wrinkles, my waistline is thickening and my greys are starting to show.   I no longer have that bright and sparkling vibrancy that I had in my mid-20s. 

My sexual threat has diminished and gradually people can start to listen to what I am saying, rather than their response being dictated by my image as the woman who has said it.

I find it sad that Eileen Carey feels the need to change the way she looks, but I can totally understand why some women feel the need to cover up who they are.  I have single friend who puts on a wedding ring in meetings so that people take her more seriously.  I don’t know whether it really changes anything but she certainly claims that she is listened to more attentively.

I have another friend who feels that motherhood somehow compromises her professional image.  One of her team asked her approval for a course of action just as she was leaving the office.  She was due to collect her son from school and didn’t have the time to discuss the issue in detail with her team member.  Rather than explaining that she had to leave to collect her son from school she lied and said that she was meeting a friend from dinner.  She feared that motherhood would somehow compromise her professional image or her dedication to her work.  I’ve told her that I find it bizarre that meeting a friend for dinner was a more professional alibi.

I don’t know what it will take to enable us women to get our voices heard regardless of our image or our maternal status.  I don’t know how we can climb these mountains more quickly.  I only know that society and the workplace is missing out whilst we are not only covering up who we really are, but pretending to be someone else entirely in order to have our voices heard. 

Are you an Eileen Carey ? Do you tone down your looks or modify your actions to be taken seriously at work?

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  1. September 30, 2017 / 9:32 pm

    I feel that being a mother certainly decreases your chance of getting a job! If it was between 2 people 1 a mother and 1 not then they are obviously going to go for the non-mother as they will expect the mama to be call away for sick kids etc. I’ve never thought to tone down my looks tho, not something which crossed my mind to do.
    Amy recently posted…Reminiscing wonderful winter memories with familyMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      September 30, 2017 / 9:58 pm

      Hi Amy, that’s interesting and very true. I often have to take days of work to look after Cygnet when he is sick. Having said that, I can honestly say that I am much more efficient at work as a mother than I ever was before. Pen x

  2. September 30, 2017 / 11:14 pm

    I was saddened by that article too. The other one that got me was the one about the company ran by two women that had to invent a fictional male boss for emails to get answers to their questions.


    • thesingleswan
      October 1, 2017 / 9:11 pm

      Yes, I read that one too. It is sad. Pen x

  3. October 1, 2017 / 2:34 am

    I don’t necessaryly tone down my looks at work but I avoid mentioning my son a lot because I want to be taken more seriously I don’t want anyone to assume I’ll be always calling sick because of the baby. I try to keep it professional even my dress code #KCACOLS

    • thesingleswan
      October 1, 2017 / 9:09 pm

      Thanks for your comment. yes, that is another thing. I also worry that my boss at work thinks I take too much time off to look after Cygnet. He has to take regular days off to take his mum to hospital so I guess in some ways he is in a similar situation. Pen x

  4. October 1, 2017 / 6:49 am

    I’ve never toned down my looks or been afraid of who I am or what I look like and it has not held me back from progressing in my career. I found it tough in my mid 20s when people would tell me I was too young to be doing the job I do, but now, a short few years later, I never get told that!

    Nicola | Mummy to Dex recently posted…Playing Fair: Should it Always Be the Mum’s Responsibility to Take Time Off When Their Child Is Sick?My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      October 1, 2017 / 9:08 pm

      Lucky you Nicola. Thanks for your comment. Pen x

  5. October 2, 2017 / 8:24 pm

    Hah! Never been a problem for me, but my Mrs., she has done so. It is a sad state of affairs that women in this day and age, have to resort to such measures. Are men that ill equipped to see us for who we are and what we offer? Argh! Great post. I can go on and on… #mg xoxo

    • thesingleswan
      October 2, 2017 / 9:18 pm

      Thanks Lisa. Pen x

  6. October 3, 2017 / 11:36 am

    I always looked young for my age, not so much now, but when I used to nurse professionally I used to find a lot of people asking my age and commenting I looked way to young to be a nurse. I had to really prove my abilities to many people. For a while I worked in an elderly home and they were not happy when I was employed, after I saved two people from dying they started loving me. Where I work part time now in a reception position I am expected to look attractive as it is part of the image of the firm I work for, if I showed up with no makeup or a bad hair day it would be frowned upon. But they are great when it comes to the mum things, really understanding if the kids are sick. #mg
    Mackenzie Glanville recently posted…reflections from . . . . . #mg #livingfearlesslyauthenticMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      October 4, 2017 / 10:08 pm

      Hi Mac,

      thanks for your comment. Good to hear that your work is really good about mum stuff, even though they would frown upon a face with no make up. Pen x

  7. October 3, 2017 / 12:02 pm

    I look and act very differently at work to the ‘real me’ but I don’t think it’s only women that do that. Most men wear suits at work and jeans and T shirts (with rock bands or sci fi movies on) at weekends. I cover my tattoo and wear ‘business dresses’ rather than the hippy stuff I prefer on a day off. Work is work and I don’t think showing a ‘serious’ image is in itself problematic. Lying about marriage? hmm. I wonder if any men do that too, a least historically men have lied and even got married to hide the true ‘them’. I don’t feel that having a child should be hidden, but that said it has affected the way I’ve been treated compared to male colleagues who have children, despite the fact my husband stays at home to look after our daughter – people still struggle with the idea of equality – he gets equal issues around being a dad that knows how to change a nappy….

    • thesingleswan
      October 4, 2017 / 10:07 pm

      Thank you. Really good to convey the other side of the story too . You are absolutely right that men suffer from stereotypes and type-casting as much as women do. it is really difficult for men to take time off work to look after the kids when they are sick, or to take long paternity leave, or even just to be the main parent at the school gate. Pen x

  8. October 3, 2017 / 7:27 pm

    It is sad that this happens. In my younger days I found it pretty hard to be taken seriously now a bit older, larger and slightly more opinionated it’s a little easier to be taken serious. Women are constantly judged on how they look and what labels we have, very unfair.
    Thanks for joining #kcacols

    • thesingleswan
      October 4, 2017 / 10:04 pm

      Hi Helen, yes, you’re right. I am also slightly more opinionated, in a good way… I think. Pen x

    • thesingleswan
      October 4, 2017 / 10:02 pm

      Thanks Lisa. Pen x

  9. October 4, 2017 / 2:35 pm

    This definitely resonates. Mine isn’t necessarily always toning down, but I think its a shame that we have to be dressed a certain way to be taken seriously! xx

    • thesingleswan
      October 4, 2017 / 10:02 pm

      Thanks Erin. Pen x

  10. October 5, 2017 / 1:33 am

    I’ve certainly felt the pressures of toning down for work and society in general. But I quickly decided to embrace me. It’s been both a pro and a con in my life as a whole…lol.


    • thesingleswan
      October 5, 2017 / 8:33 pm

      Good for you! Pen x

  11. October 5, 2017 / 7:35 pm

    This is an interesting, thought-provoking post. I am 30 but I look really young for my age and so people often don’t take me seriously. If I’m going to an important meeting, I do try to dress in a way that makes me look older and do my hair differently. It’s a shame that people’s perceived intellect and ability is based on their gender or age #mg
    Lucy At Home recently posted…Blogcrush Week 34 – 6th October 2017My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      October 5, 2017 / 8:29 pm

      Hi Lucy,

      Lucky you to look young for your age. I am envious. I know exactly what you mean though. I dress more conservatively at work to look older and more mature. Pen x

  12. October 6, 2017 / 4:29 pm

    while I’ve never done this personally, I can understand why it seems like a good idea. It’s sad that women are still judged on their looks rather than their ability, but the fact is it does happen. I don’t know what the answer is, but something has to change.
    Thanks for linking up to #AnythingGoes 🙂
    Random Musings recently posted…Halloween Horrors LinkyMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      October 6, 2017 / 10:09 pm

      I agree. Thanks Debs. Pen x

  13. October 8, 2017 / 12:47 pm

    I don’t think that anybody should dress themselves up or down for anybody else’s benefit, I certainly never would and it’s awful that the world makes people think this way #KCACOLS

  14. October 8, 2017 / 12:57 pm

    I’m lucky in that my workplace is small and run by women… of 4 managers, 3 of us are female and one also happens to be my mum. Much of my working life I’ve had strong female managers and role models so I’ve never knowingly suffered due to my gender. Having said that, I’ve never really thought about it or looked for evidence of it. I certainly don’t tone myself down for work, although I will dress professionally. Interesting and sad that some women find it necessary.

    • thesingleswan
      October 8, 2017 / 7:52 pm

      Your workplace sounds lovely. I think my mum and I would drive each other mad if we worked together though. Well done! Pen x

  15. October 8, 2017 / 7:32 pm

    I can’t comment on whether I have done it, although I wish I could dye my hair purple, but I hate that she had to do this. But it’s the reality. If women don’t they can’t get anyway to change the system. #kcacols

    • thesingleswan
      October 8, 2017 / 7:51 pm

      This is true. In a way, I think we have to conform and gradually modify the system once we are in it. It is sad though. Pen x

  16. October 10, 2017 / 9:39 pm

    Oh wow! I must sound naive but I thought we were so past all of this! Only today I was saying to my dad how pleased I am to be a woman of this generation rather than back 30/40/50 years ago when it was completely acceptable to grope a woman in the office and it be considered “fair play”.

    This makes me sad to think women are still feeling and having to bahve like this in 21st century Britain.

    Cassie parish recently posted…Tips to encourage your child to wash and brush their teethMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      October 11, 2017 / 7:24 pm

      Hi Cassie,

      thanks for your comment. I think we are very much still in this. Look at the Harvey Weinstein story! Pen x

  17. October 14, 2017 / 10:02 am

    I’m a journalist & I think it’s a bit different in my line of work – if anything you’re more likely to tone UP how you look to be more camera friendly etc! #KCACOLS
    Crummy Mummy recently posted…What to say to someone who’s miscarriedMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      October 14, 2017 / 8:51 pm

      Good for you! Maybe I need to change my line of work… Pen x

  18. November 14, 2017 / 3:40 pm

    Funnily enough, I experienced that when I left for maternity, I was quickly forgotten. Keep in touch days never happened. When I returned, my manager wouldn’t brief me on certain things that were happening in the team etc I left a competent business person and I came back to the office “a mother” like it’s sort of a bad thing to be
    Vicky recently posted…How my Baby changed my life: Embracing the uncertaintyMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      November 15, 2017 / 9:04 pm

      Oh my goodness Vicky, that is really terrible. Your boss sounds like a complete dinosaur. I’m really sorry for you. Pen x

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