Can’t Ignore Me In My Red Lipstick: Why Makeup At Work Matters

Patti Lupone starred in “War Paint,” the story of two cosmetics moguls.

Patti Lupone starred in “War Paint,” the story of two cosmetics moguls.

It’s on. The makeup, that is. And it’s on for a reason.

From the recently over-critiqued “smoky eye” to a ruby-stained lip, apparently the way any woman in the workplace presents her face makes a big difference.

A lipstick gap exists as women are judged on their effectiveness as it relates to their makeup in the workplace. And it goes without saying that men in the workplace are not judged by their rouge or  facial appearance.

“Modern open workspaces put women under pressure to dress up, buy elegant clothes and wear make-up,” writes Victoria Allen in The Daily Mail.

A #lipstickgap exists as women are judged on their effectiveness as it relates to their makeup in the workplace. Men, unsurprisingly, do not share this problem. #genderequality

Allen writes, “Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bedfordshire spent three years studying the behavior of around 1,000 employees” and found that women feel constantly watched and judged. They feel that if they wear makeup and dress up for work, they will be perceived as more competent.

Research from other universities backs this up.

“Sociologists Kirsten Dellinger and Christine L. Williams’ analysis of make-up at work found that cosmetics are tied to ideas of competence and confidence,” writes Peter Rydzewski in Everyday Sociology.

“If these appearance ideals are not met, women may be not even have the opportunity to compete for work, regardless of their educational background or skills. As a result, a specific ‘look’ dominates what constitutes one’s perceived ability to perform a work-related task,” Rydzewski writes.

A 2011 Harvard University “study paid for by Procter & Gamble, which sells CoverGirl and Dolce & Gabbana makeup,” according to the New York Times, “has given makeup credit for people inferring that a woman was capable, reliable and amiable.”

According to Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of  Take The Lead, “Like most cultural norms, wearing makeup hasn’t always been gendered. Six thousand years ago, Egyptian men used black pigment eyeliner to look more dramatic, or as a status symbol. We’ve all seen pictures of men with powdered faces during Elizabethan times and powdered wigs in colonial America.”

Feldt adds, “Similarly, the red lipstick I might wear as a power statement now was considered fit only for prostitutes and male actors a century ago. The trick for any woman is to determine for herself whether she feels most in her authentic power when she is makeup free, made up to the hilt, or somewhere in between. Then wear it (or not), own it, and show up as you want to be seen. You get to choose how you show up in the world.”

In the 2017 Broadway production of War Paint, The Musical, focusing on the lives of cosmetics entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, the shifting norms of appearance for women in the mid-20th century are in play. It also highlighted how makeup products significantly changed women’s images of themselves and enabled these two moguls to shatter the glass ceiling of an industry to create empires.

Makeup can literally make careers.

The #Broadway musical, War Paint, tells the story of how makeup can literally make careers and enabled two moguls to shatter the #glassceiling of their industry.

Recently researchers from the University of Rochester and Fordham University wrote in the Journal of Consumer Culture, “Women incorporate advertising discourses, not yielding to them or resisting them, but rather transforming them to suit their needs in using makeup products for creating confidence and preparing themselves for engagement in the world.”

In other words, most of us take to heart what the ads tell us about how we will be improved in all aspects of our lives personally and professionally if we just had the right blendable foundation.

The authors continue, “At the same time, paradoxical adherence to advertising discourse indicates that gender inequality remains an ideological force in our society. Processes of ritualization produce and legitimize hierarchies of power in society.”

This sense of worth tied to cosmetics goes back thousands of years, perhaps to the kohl-rimmed eye in ancient Egypt. But today it is huge business.

Lila LacLellan writes in Quartz, “The $400 billion-plus global cosmetics business has mastered the art of delivering two conflicting messages at once: ‘You’re imperfect, and you need me’ and ‘You’re already gorgeous, and I’m merely the wind beneath your gorgeous winged eyeliner.’ The industry has repeatedly proven that it can survive trends in fashion and feminist politics, and sell anything, including overpriced sheet masks, and makeup that makes skin makeup-ready.

Laclellan continues, “That’s reassuring. As women in leadership roles have reported, they’re already being judged more harshly than men in the same jobs for everything from how sensitive or assertive they are, to the way they dress, and any bad decisions they make. We don’t need to add lipstick intensity to the list.”

And then there are the 

Some role models, such as Alicia Keys, are ditching the makeup to make a natural, powerful statement with the #NoMakeup movement.

Alicia Keys in 2016 launched a #NoMakeup movement, foregoing makeup in her performances, photo shoots, everywhere.

“I swear it is the strongest, most empowered, most free, and most honestly beautiful that I have ever felt,” she said of the experience, according to Huffington Post.

Recently pop stars and models are jumping on the clean faced, makeup free look, as they post their selfies on Instagram.  But these are not looks they are wearing to work.

Other new research agrees with the clean, fresh-faced side of women in leadership.

Researchers from Abertay University, in Dundee, Scotland  found that “women who aspire to be great leaders should put down the lipstick and go easy on the mascara. New research suggests that female bosses should not wear too much makeup because it could harm their authority. They found that people judged heavily made up women as having poorer leadership skills than those who had not used cosmetics,” according to the Daily Telegraph.

Nasha Smith recently went makeup free at work and everywhere and is pleased with her choice.

“Cosmetics help us play up our best features and hide our flaws. And when you look good, you feel good. But the no makeup look can be just as powerful,” Smith writes in Insider. “It gives us an opportunity to be comfortable with our authentic selves and to be accepted as we are. You would be surprised how impactful going bare can be.”

Some retail stores in the United Kingdom, for example, have requirements for female employees to wear makeup to work, Rebecca Reid writes in Metro, “Our employers can still insist that we wear makeup to work because if we haven’t used products to enhance our beauty, we’re not good enough. Wearing makeup is not an intrinsic part of a woman looking presentable.”

“Makeup is designed to make women more attractive. More beautiful. Being beautiful is not part of most people’s jobs,” Reid writes. “Why should a woman have to enhance her beauty in order to do her job?”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project.