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.
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?