THE BLOG

Are You Too Pretty or Too Ugly for Success?

21/07/2015 10:39 BST | Updated 20/07/2016 10:59 BST

To be successful as a woman in business you need to be a seven out of 10. You need to be just attractive enough to be noticed, and you need to be not so attractive that you're discounted or that you make people uncomfortable. And the real discrimination that I see is against really attractive women who literally aren't hired because they make men uncomfortable, and really unattractive women, or not-cute-enough women, who are just ignored.

Michelle Miller in Elle magazine, March 2014

Being too attractive or not attractive enough can apparently have a serious impact on your career prospects if you're a woman in the modern workplace. Michelle Miller, a Stanford graduate, writer and former wealth manager at JP Morgan, repeated her advice in The Times on Saturday- saying that women who are too pretty tend to be distracting to men and uglier women are ignored. To be fair Miller was talking about a very specific working environment- Silicon Valley (one where Miller says men are particularly uncomfortable around women) and so her theory isn't universal but it's shocking. Do we really assess women at work on their physical attractiveness? And is being 'average' a good way to get ahead?

At the moment there's a lot of theory around how women's communication modes and values are in the ascendance - how values such as collaboration and empathy are what's required to get ahead in the business environment. Women are in a powerful position to capitalise on these shifts and changes (and let's get this straight, men have these skills too). The trouble with a working culture that assesses women's value on appearance alone is that there's not much the individual can do. You're either a swan or a duck. And whilst we can optimise every aspect of ourselves through exercise, diet, education, culture- we are still blessed with a certain set of skin, teeth and bones (and all the other bits - biology has never been my strong point). What's a woman supposed to do? Cry because she's too ugly to be make herself a decent career?

In specific industries a woman's appearance is vitally important- modelling is one of them and you'd think (according to Miller's theory) one where men are feeling very uncomfortable and distracted. But are we applying the same criteria to other industries too?

In just about every strata of life, appearance plays a part in how we assess another individual. We look at hair, dress, shoes and chewed up fingernails and these form an impression of whether this person is mad, interesting or someone we want to spend more time with. But 'being a seven' as a piece of advice for women is not very helpful. Appearance will only ever be part of the story. There's all the other stuff like whether you can actually do your job, get on with people and offer something positive and of value to the company. Too much focus on appearance also signals a retreat away from the Boardroom (and the work that really matters) and back to the bathroom (to prettify ourselves). It's also offensive to men. Are they just chest-beating cavemen that can't focus in the presence of an attractive women?

Miller's article is interesting in that it raises the double standards that still exist in the world of work. I don't agree with what she says but I imagine that what she says is probably true (especially in more male-dominated work places). And it's interesting because it starts a conversation about how we think about women in the workplace. As Gloria Steinem once said: 'The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.

Appearance is just one facet of communication but in some places it's obviously still the most important one. And there isn't much women can do but be successful, dedicated and brilliant regardless...whether they're swans or ducks.