Beauty Biases in the Workplace

They say you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have. But dressing for the job you have isn't always easy either. Some companies may enforce strict dress codes or at least expect certain norms within the office. Other expectations may even influence appearance details like age, hair, and even weight.

And your clients, co-workers, and employers could be passing judgment. At least that's what our survey of nearly 1,000 employees revealed. We asked respondents how others perceived them at the office based on certain physical attributes, as well as how much time and effort they dedicated to getting ready for work every day. Read on to see what working Americans have to say about beauty bias in the workplace.

Superficial Discrimination

Appearance-based discrimination can take many forms and is even broadly referred to as "lookism" by Merriam-Webster, but it wasn't hard to pinpoint for our respondents. More than 1 in 4 employees had directly experienced appearance-based discrimination at work. Most often, it happened for women, 31% of who had experienced discrimination based on their appearance. And although we often think of ageism as affecting the elderly, it was younger respondents who felt the most judged for their looks.

The pressure to change appearance was rampant, as the majority – 65% – of employees had worn nicer work attire to fit into their workplace. Fifty-three percent also wore nicer shoes, and 48% got a haircut to accommodate workplace culture. But judgments and corresponding appearance changes got pickier than that: 39% had to choose a new hairstyle completely, 37% started to wear makeup, and 34% tried to improve the way their skin looked.

Changing appearances to please others took a darker turn when it came to body image. Of the employees who faced appearance-based discrimination at work, 23% of men and 21% of women attempted to lose weight. Weight-based discrimination is increasingly common and detrimental to both the physical and mental health of employees. It's an important topic that we made sure to dive even deeper into during this study, so continue reading to see how weight-based discrimination plays out in the office.

The Beauty Bonus

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it may often be in the eye of the employer as well. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they had benefited from their appearance at work. More often, this happened to women and younger employees.

But how did appearance benefit employees? Ninety percent said it influenced both client perception and company image. Another 85% said an employee's appearance could make a person seem more or less confident. Seventy-three percent said looks could even affect perceptions of competency. In other words, the way a person looked suggested certain performance-related factors for the majority of working Americans.

Only 32%, however, thought men and women were held to the same appearance-based standards. In addition to people having higher standards for women regarding their appearance, they are also up against several gender biases that may make it more difficult for women to dress as professionally as they would otherwise want to: Colder office temperatures often favor more fabric-heavy male attire, while shopping for professional clothing is notoriously more expensive for women than it is for men.

Looking the Part

"Appearance" is a pretty general word, so we wanted to get more specific. What distinct characteristics most heavily impacted workplace perceptions? The answer was age, followed closely by weight and tattoos, which impacted perceptions for 60%, 58%, and 57% of respondents, respectively.

Age-based discrimination can go one of two ways: You are either perceived as too old or too young to perform the job as well as your older or younger peers. Younger people may be perceived as having a lack of experience, while older employees may be perceived as slow to adapt to new technologies. One could argue that there may be truth behind these age-based strengths and weaknesses, but it's more important to consider a candidate's resume, adaptability, and willingness to learn before making assumptions about their capabilities and experience based on looks.

Weight, however, should have absolutely no bearing on a person's ability to perform an office job. And yet, co-workers and employers continue to perceive it that way. Research shows that weight-based discrimination has increased by 66% in the past decade, with women facing the brunt of it. Unfortunately, weight-based discrimination is still legal in workplaces in 49 U.S. states, with no real protection for victims.

And although increasing legal protections are entering workplaces to prevent sexual orientation biases, 28% of respondents believed sexual preference still affected how they were perceived at work.

Ready for Action

With all of the pressures that go into getting ready for work, it's a wonder that we're able to find the time to do so successfully. On average, respondents reported needing 32 minutes to get ready for work every day. That means that on top of actual working hours, the average American employee needs more than an additional two and a half hours every week to make their appearance appropriate for the job.

Female respondents reported needing 35 minutes to get ready for each workday, yet data still revealed they experienced appearance-based discrimination more often than men. Moreover, if a respondent of any gender had experienced appearance-based discrimination in the office, it corresponded with taking longer to get ready in the morning. We also found that 29% of men and 14% of women were able to get ready in just 15 minutes or less before heading out the door.

Getting ready in the morning, however, doesn't automatically translate into a chore. There can be a certain gratitude and ritualistic aspect of preparing yourself physically and mentally for the day. In fact, our results showed that the more time a person spent getting ready in the morning, the more productive they were at work. Those who felt "extremely or very productive" took an average of 33 minutes to primp each workday, compared to those who were only "somewhat or not at all productive" who got ready in just 28 minutes.

Although men wear makeup more than ever before, contributing to a multibillion-dollar male grooming industry, makeup is still predominantly targeted toward women. Our results found several interesting impacts that wearing makeup in the workplace had for our female respondents, 56% of who wore makeup to work every day. Women who held first to midlevel management positions were the most likely to wear makeup to work daily. And of female employees who had received a raise or promotion in the past year, 59% had worn makeup to work every single day. With makeup requiring additional time, perhaps we're again seeing the trend of increased productivity (and, therefore, raises and promotions) with increased time needed to get ready.

Working for the Wardrobe

As our study previously revealed, working Americans are changing their attire more often than not for the sake of the workplace. And these changes aren't free, nor are they paid for by the employer. In the past year, respondents had spent an average of $362 on work attire. One in 4 workers had spent over $500 –11% even spent upward of $1,000. For some, this could mean an entire paycheck devoted to clothing that they perhaps wouldn't otherwise want to wear.

Gender once again played a significant role here. Female respondents spent an average of $403.93 annually on work attire, compared to men who spent roughly $50 less than that. The higher price wasn't the only inconvenience for female employees: Women were also three times more likely than men to have a difficult time finding professional work apparel. Clothing more often associated with women (like strapless tops, tank tops, leggings, etc.) are often not welcomed in the workplace or are seen as unprofessional, whereas men's clothing choices may be fine for work and less expensive to buy.

Appearances Aren't Always as They Seem

Although much of this study revealed a persistence of workplace appearance-based discrimination, it's important to remember that you are your own individual, even at work. If the way you naturally look isn't right for your employer, then maybe that employer is not right for you either. You deserve to be comfortable in your own skin, in your own age, and in your own gender.

Professionalism with regard to workplace attire, however, may be a nonnegotiable for certain offices, and perhaps rightfully so. And with data revealing that lengthy morning routines correspond with increased productivity, it might be worth taking a second look at how you choose to wake up and present yourself to the world. Are you choosing behaviors, clothing, and self-care practices that best prepare you for a successful day at work? No matter what you choose to wear, make sure to put your best face forward. Take great care of your skin, whether putting makeup over it or not. At Univia, great skin is only a few clicks away, so you can be ready for your day at work and beyond.

Methodology and Limitations

We compiled results from 997 employees by administering online surveys via Amazon Mechanical Turk. To qualify for this survey, participants were required to be employed in the United States. An attention-check question was used to pinpoint and disqualify respondents who failed to read the questions in their entirety. Of the 997 employees polled, 562 identified as female, and 435 were male. The range of ages surveyed spanned from 18 to 74 years old with an average of 37 and a standard deviation of 16. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3% at a 95% confidence interval. In many cases, questions and answer choices were rephrased for brevity. The main limitation of this study is that the data rely on self-reporting. This means the findings are subject to factors like attribution, exaggeration, and recency bias.

Fair Use Statement

Surprised by the findings of this study? You're welcome to share them with your co-workers or any of your online connections, so long as it's for noncommercial purposes and you make sure to link back to this page.