According to the headline of a story posted by Tampa’s WFLA news channel, “Wearing makeup can hinder women’s leadership chances, study says.” As someone who doesn’t wear makeup, and rather than continuing to scroll past the link to see the latest good dog on WeRateDogs (@dog_rates), I decided to find out how this decision apparently increased my odds of being a leader. The study, “Negative Effects of Makeup Use on Perceptions of Leadership Ability Across Two Ethnicities,” which was led by Dr. Christopher Watkins in the Division of Psychology at Scotland’s Abertay University, examined what effect the use of makeup (in this case, termed as makeup used for a “social night out”) had on the perception of women’s capacity for leadership. Though the results of the study show that makeup negatively impacts possible leadership ability, the opening line of the WFLA piece seems to draw out the results’ logical conclusion: “A new study found if women want to be great leaders in the workplace, they’ll need to put down the lipstick and go easy on the mascara.”
However, what interests me here is not that someone like me might be promoted as a supervisor over the likes of the latest Revlon spokesperson; rather, I am drawn to how the presumption of authority relates to how we perceive the world around us. That is to say, since our perceptions construct our reality, then they certainly determine who (or what) we find to be authoritative. In other words, authority is not intrinsic to a person or position. But what makes someone capable of being a leader or an authority is not exactly straightforward. Some might say that it’s a person’s credentials or their previous experience. From this study, though, notice that it’s neither of these things that makes these women capable of occupying a role of authority — it’s the way they look. But why do some physical appearances suggest that a person would be a better leader than someone else?
This is where stereotypes and implicit bias come in. In a story I heard on WBUR’s Here and Now, Jeremy Hobson, one of the show’s hosts, spoke with Patricia Devine, a psychology professor at University of Wisconsin – Madison, about the ways in which stereotypes and biases become ingrained in our minds, especially at a young age. This is demonstrated in a story Devine recounts about one of her own students:
“[She] was responding to an accident on campus, she went to render assistance to a student who was hit by a car. And simultaneously, another woman came to render assistance. This woman was barking commands, she was saying, ‘Don’t move the head, call 911,’ and my student, who’s very committed to addressing issues of sexism, looked up at her and earnestly said, ‘Are you a nurse?’ You can imagine, the woman’s not a nurse, she was a doctor.”
“But the nurse response is so easily provided by her socialization experiences, our learning histories, perhaps where, when she was younger, in particular, women were more likely to be nurses than physicians … So it’s just that quick assumption that people make that will influence how they think about others, how they treat others and as I said, the assumptions that they make that can diminish the experience of the other, or could constrain their opportunities if you’re not thinking that they’re capable of doing a wide range of activities, for example.”
As Devine notes, the student’s initial response to the responding woman reveals the way unconscious biases operate, especially when quickly assessing a situation. There doesn’t seem to be any intention to undermine the woman’s authority as a doctor, but yet the student’s own implicit bias categorized her, instead, as a nurse.
Thus, to return to the point above, in a similar manner to the student’s snap judgment with the doctor, we might consider that a woman’s face, whether or not she is wearing makeup, carries no intrinsic value itself; instead, what we perceive and the value attached to that perception might reveal one’s own implicit bias, a bias that takes more seriously a woman who is bare-faced in comparison to one who is wearing makeup that signals she is ready for a “social night out.” What we might conclude, then, is that the capability of leadership, of authority, rests with the one doing the assessing, not the object being assessed. That is, though a term like “natural born leader” is used to describe someone who possesses traits associated with leadership, it may be the case that our perceptions project those qualities onto the person more than they expose any inherent ability.