Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant in Iowa, was recently fired for appearing “too irresistible” in the workplace. The Iowa Supreme Court went on to rule that she was fired legally, as it was not based on gender discrimination, but rather her “perceived threat” to her employer’s marriage (whose wife requested that Nelson be fired). To clarify: She worked there for 10 years, they were not having an affair, and Nelson wore scrubs to work.
So does this story serve as a signal that we should try to look as unappealing as possible in the workplace? No, it does not.
In addition to our three recognized personal assets -- economic, cultural, and social capital -- Catherine Hakim adds another (much more controversial) asset to this list: erotic capital.
Hakim isn’t encouraging us to cheapen ourselves in the workplace or act inappropriately. Rather, she’s advocating that physical appearance matters, even (and particularly) in professional advancement, and therefore we should use it to our advantage. (Still not convinced? Think it’s just a bunch of superficial nonsense? Check out Daniel Hamermesh’s Beauty Pays, the first book to seriously measure how attractiveness affects much more than mere mate selection and demonstrate how it dramatically transforms one’s professional success.)
Does this mean we all need to look like supermodels and celebrities in the boardroom? Hardly. It also doesn’t mean we have to follow a particular script, and it needn’t threaten any feminist ideologies we may espouse (I make a case for this in greater detail here). There’s plenty of room for a comfortable -- and attractive -- coexistence.
We need to start with a working definition of what we mean by “attractive,” for both women and men. Most of us aren’t ready to grace the covers of Vogue or GQ, so let’s just immediately eliminate that as the standard. But we can present a more polished, appealing aesthetic via grooming techniques, attention to detail, and even posture.
Here are some tips to ensure you’re you’re taking full advantage of your physical assets (and using them wisely).
- Add one small element into your daily routine that will boost appearance and your self-confidence: exercise before work or add a new makeup addition (a pop of lip color, mascara, or blush -- or try one of our minimalist makeup suggestions).
- Gauge what clothing is appropriate for your specific workplace by following the lead of the highest ranking women or men in your company. Let them set the tone, and then dress accordingly.
- Consider hiring a stylist. It’s not just for celebrities, and fine-tuning your appearance can significantly enhance your professional persona (and bank account), making it a smart long-term investment.
How do you think your attractiveness works for or against you in the workplace? Have you experienced or witnessed promotion or penalization based on attractiveness? Let us know -- we’d love to hear your thoughts.