New research on heavy make-up embeds bias

by | Mar 15, 2018

  Heavy make-up has a negative impact on the perception of women's leadership skills

You're kidding, right? Yet another conversation around women and appearance. Now it's heavy make-up.

It seems we are still talking about, and spending more money researching women and make-up. Or more precisely now it's women and heavy make-up. Research, conducted by Abertay University, revealed that the amount of make-up a woman wears can have a negative impact on perceptions of her leadership ability. Really? But perhaps this is just about confirming bias around the perceptions of women who wear heavy make-up, or any at all. What does this mean and why does it even matter? Why should wearing make-up,  heavy or otherwise, or none at all, impact  skill levels or competence and an ability to lead?

Heavy make-up

New research

The research was carried out by Dr Christopher Watkins of Abertay’s Division of Psychology. He  showed participants 16 face-pairs of women, one with make-up applied for a “social night out” (whatever that is) and one without. Participants were then asked to choose which one of the two they felt would make a better leader. The results showed both men and women evaluated women more negatively as a leader if the image suggested she was wearing a lot of makeup. Computer software was used to manipulate the faces and the amount of makeup was also manipulated in the face images.

Only a short while ago we were told that women who didn't wear make-up were considered to be more likeable and competent than those who don't. Research from the European Commission (2013) also suggests that women's appearance is more significant in the recruitment process (ranked third) than the appearance of their male counterparts (ranked 9).

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Doomed if they do ... damned if the don't

This is just more "doomed if they do and damned if they don't" for women. These results tap into the age-old bias about women and their appearance. In particular they focus on the message that women who wear heavy make-up means ... what exactly? They like to go out and if they go out they can't possibly do a good job and be a leader? Or perhaps it could be that they like to pile on the make-up for a night in front of the T.V. with a box set and a pizza.

The fact is that the make-up applied as if for a "night out" is a long way from what most women would wear professionally. And every woman dresses differently for a social night out anyway. Dr Watkins said:

“This research follows previous work in this area, which suggests that wearing makeup enhances how dominant a woman looks. While the previous findings suggest that we are inclined to show some deference to a woman with a good-looking face, our new research suggests that makeup does not enhance a woman’s dominance by benefitting how we evaluate her in a leadership role." 

Rather than blanket acceptance of this type of research, we should be looking at the underlying bias that produces these results. Could it be that people don't like to see images of  "dominant" women - whatever that means. Yet this research makes no mention of bias.

Dominance and prestige

However another study by researchers at the University of Sterling in Scotland (maybe this pre-occupation with make-up is a Scottish thing) does. They noted that the wearing of makeup impacted an interviewer’s opinion of the candidate. Furthermore, there was an observable variance between male and female interviewers.

Dr. Viktoria Mileva, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the university said:

“Either you are dominant, which means you are happy using forcefulness or manipulation to make people follow you. Alternatively, you can gain high status by prestige; by having positive merits and qualities that make others want to follow you. Men think women with make-up are more ‘prestigious,’ while women think women with make-up are more dominant.” 

So why is it that women view women wearing make-up to be “dominant” instead of “prestigious?” Dr. Mileva said it “might be related to jealousy and threat potential.”

Dr. Mileva carried out some follow-up studies focusing on the perception of women wearing make-up being perceived as more dominant. Her conclusions related to the primal anthropology of jealousy and threat potential.

“Women rating women with make-up said they would be more jealous of them, thought they were more promiscuous, and would be more attractive to men than their non-makeup-wearing counterparts.”

Skills and competences

This research comes at a time when automated interview platforms are telling women not to wear make-up because it's distracting. All this is doing is embedding bias around women even deeper under the auspices of  pseudo research.

Time to focus on qualities, skills and competences and to stop research such as this unless it factors in the implicit biases behind the results.

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Fashion Junkie Contributor
Fashion Junkie is a Gen Y closet fashion fiend. By day she is an industrial engineer with a passion for clothes and trends, at night she is a glam fashionista. She loves to Benettonize her friends' closets and moonlights at weekends sharing her ideas about clothes for women who care about how they look, recognises that some games need to be played, but without selling their souls. Above all she wants the judgement of women's appearance in the workplace to be reduced to the same level as men. She is not so much out of the box but was never really in it!

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