Two sides of a coin

Two sides of a coin

There is constant pressure on professional women to look good. Yet, it is the same “looks” factor that seems to lash out against them, where it concerns career growth, rues Shilpa Manjal.

I got chatting with a friend and the conversation naturally veered towards discrimination at work.
 “Men don’t go beyond short skirts,” she said. 

She went on, “In my first job, I met my male boss one day in the elevator. He hadn’t directly hired me and that was the first time we were meeting. We merely exchanged hellos and then met only later that year when I was sitting with him for my appraisal. I had filed ground-breaking stories and was expecting a good applause for my work. You know the only remark he made? ‘Ah! The girl with those honey-coloured eyes.’” 

For most, it would be difficult to see things from her point of view. Think about it. What’s the norm? Good-looking = good equation with boss = fatter pay cheque/ corner cabin/ higher position. So what’s there to complain? Plenty, especially if you are on the other side of the fence. Flynn Pereira was. The 29-year-old customer executive says, “I had a male centre head and I am hardly the choice of anyone looking to flirt. I consider myself an average looker and I am not the sort to look for a conversation when there isn’t any.

In an office full of females in short skirts, and with grease paint on, my boss found me unworthy of promotion. I have been surpassed by women much junior,” she claims.

That sounds pitiful, right? Not after you’ve read about Manhattan-based Debrahlee Lorenzana. Plastic surgery or not, this ‘attractive’ female employee was allegedly booted from a leading international bank’s office, as the men, apparently, couldn’t keep their eyes off her.

She cried foul and sued the bank while saying that she even toned down her dressing to appease the management. 

“As a result of her tall stature, coupled with her curvaceous figure,” her suit said, Debrahlee was told “she should not wear classic high-heeled business shoes, as this purportedly drew attention to her body in a manner that was upsetting to her easily distracted male managers.” She’s not alone. Harvard University librarian Desiree Goodwin claimed in a lawsuit that she has been rejected repeatedly for promotion because she was black and was perceived as just a “pretty girl” whose attire was too “sexy”!

As an HR head for a leading retail firm, Nandita Nair has probably seen all this, and much more, in the Indian context. “Being attractive is not a crime. It could just mean that someone has an immaculate body hygiene, dressing sense and gait. Most of the time, it is difficult to resist being close to people like that. The ‘attractiveness’, could also be perceived as the care for details that the person can bring to the work at hand. Think about it. Would you entrust an important job to a sloppy person?” she argues.

That argument notwithstanding, it turns out that companies are not necessarily positively biased towards ‘pretty’ women, especially in terms of important jobs. In fact, a 2010 report. by Forbes. cites a study, which says that being an attractive man was an advantage in all jobs sought, while being an attractive woman was considered a disadvantage in many professions. Reportedly, attractiveness in women did not work for professional roles such as the manager of research and development (R&D), director of finance, mechanical engineer and construction supervisor, it said. Does it mean that only client-facing roles help attractive women climb the corporate ladder?

Sandesh Paul, a senior manager in an e-commerce venture, maintains, “It’s difficult to generalise attractiveness and its effect on women’s career. It depends on a whole host of things – whether the boss has a glad eye, whether the female is comfortable having it her way, come what may, and whether she is good at her job or not. Also it’s not just women. Attractive men, too, get those juicy assignments when female superiors connect with them.” 

With image-consciousness becoming an inherent part of the working class, the Indian cosmetics industry is itself getting a tremendous makeover. According to an industry report in 2013, the retail beauty and cosmetics market in India, currently estimated at $950 million, is pegged at $2.68 billion by the year 2020. The Indian market, it says, is growing twice as fast as the US and the European markets, at 15-20 percent annually. Expect not just bigger volumes of cosmetic products sales but also a spurt in the number of spas, parlours and wellness centres across the length and the breadth of the country. If it isn’t already a nation obsessed with looks, it certainly is going to be one in all its glory now. 

“It’s difficult to keep shut when a pretty colleague has charmed her way into a better position. If she and I have the same merit, why should she get considered to be promoted over me?” asks PR professional Tanvi Vyas, who claims that she has had the bitter experience in three different firms and even confronted her bosses over the issue, only to get booted out.And the argument continues..."

(Some names have been changed to protect their identities)

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