19/09/2017 11:40 BST | Updated 19/09/2017 11:40 BST

How Does Makeup Affect The Way Women Are Perceived At Work?

How does wearing makeup impact the way professional women are perceived in the workplace? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Koyel Bandyopadhyay, sociologist and woman:

We often take the proverb of "beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder" as a sort of truism that excludes the multifarious factors impacting perception of women wearing makeup, beyond the aesthetic appeal of it. Moreover, what is considered as "beautiful" varies throughout the world, based on socialized notions of relativity, and not just evolutionary theory dictated terms of what appears as "healthy" for mating purposes.

So, the answer to this question depends on where you ask, and who you ask.

Perceptions of women wearing makeup aren't just formed by men - they are also formed by women [1]. Further, perceptions consist of two-way traffic of feelings and emotions [2]:

1) Makeup becoming a tool to create perceptions, and

2) Makeup conforming (or not) to expectations in creating perceptions.

We can't possibly ignore the interplay of the individual agency and collective expectations when it comes to professional women wearing makeup.

This also hinges on how far professional women are expected to deviate from their non-professional avatars - their domestic side of unpaid labour, which tags them as "unprofessional".

Why Professional Makeup?

This demarcation--between the professional and the unprofessional women belies makeup being used as a sort of embankment that holds their valued skill set. Professionalism pays skill sets. Unprofessional women, are involved in domestic, unpaid labour. They are usually working round the clock, and they do not need to wear makeup to prove their mettle, because nobody really is expecting it. Work awaits only for them. They rarely face any competition to gain dominance in that sector.

But where professional makeup is expected, it's used more as a screening tool to measure the labour worth of women, as visible through attributes such as confidence, cleanliness, grooming, dominance, and alternative ideas of femininity viewing women capable of navigating between both worlds of professionalism and unprofessionalism.

Professionalism, or the competence or skills expected out of a person - in this case a woman - does not include makeup as a screening tool to gauge the employable worth of a woman when she contributes in domestic labour.

"Professional makeup" signifies a specific kind of makeup. It is different than "party makeup" or "bridal makeup" or "wedding makeup" or "the no-makeup look makeup" or "funeral makeup". Makeup varies because it is a criterion to judge sense of belonging pertaining to a specific group, and that criterion is shaped by:

  • Cultural expectations regarding women,
  • Socialized, relative ideas of beauty and aesthetics,
  • Sectoral expectations of different kinds of professions, as well as
  • Varying ideas of "suitable amount of makeup" distinguishing "dignified" and "undignified" makeup.

It's quite a rule-bound process.

Variance in Professional Makeup

As regards professional makeup, countries and cultures differ on the metrics of how much makeup says "confident", "skilled", "put together", "powerful"; and whether or not makeup is deemed to be essential ways of saying the above, disregarding individual choices.

For example, if as a woman, you are working in a State Bank of India in Ahmedabad, you would be judged very differently as to whether or not you are wearing "professional makeup", than if you were working in the Bank of Montreal in Toronto; in case of the former, whether or not you wear makeup would be deemed irrelevant, though you could be judged if you tend to wear "too much" (a variable marker) of it.

If you are a woman professor working in Paris, the same amount of makeup you apply in reference to "professional makeup" in Paris would be judged very differently if you are a woman professor in Pakistan, because in the latter case, academicians are expected to cover a certain ground of being attractive only through their intellect or teaching methods; going beyond those prescriptions would bring in questions as to the "need" to do so, as regards acceptance.

Having said that, certain professions demand specific kinds of makeup from women, such as air stewardess, TV journalists, receptionists, secretaries, makeup personnel themselves, etc. Little countrywide variation exists regarding makeup in these professions, especially when it comes to women.

But nobody is really expecting women janitors to apply makeup when they come for work; if they do, it's their individual choice and then they are marked for their individual expression--the ones towards the tails of the normal curve.

The Boundaries and Sense of Belonging

Wearing professional makeup signifies a break from appearing unprofessional or appearing to be good only for unpaid, unskilled work, often collated with domestic labour (which is by no means unskilled).

It conforms to the expectations that you are taking your group membership seriously.

However, in cultures that don't view women as ever being disjointed from their domestic roles, makeup signifies a break from domesticity and is therefore not encouraged in the workplace, sectoral differences (being a receptionist or air-stewardess) notwithstanding.

In some cultures where makeup is not viewed as a criterion to establish professionalism of women owing to a fuzzy role boundaries of women being more suited for domestic jobs or "outside jobs", subscribing to a societal pressure of having to apply makeup doesn't exist; it's more of an individual choice.

And in those cultures where women are supposed to deliver it all and smoothly operate through the dual, separate worlds of domesticity and public domains, professional makeup becomes ominously important as to how they are perceived in conforming to group expectations.

In the end, your experiences are going to be different based on which culture you belong to.


[1] Sex Differences in the Perceived Dominance and Prestige of Women With and Without Cosmetics

[2] Cosmetics Industry Driven by Emotions | Psych Central News