Should you abandon wearing makeup to be taken more seriously at work?

The Telegraph and The Daily Mail recently published articles based on a new study around office makeup.

In short, both articles make two claims:

  • Wearing too much makeup to the office is harmful to a woman’s leadership chances
  • Female bosses who wear too much makeup are considered worse leaders compared to their bare-faced colleagues

Oh happy day! What sweeping statements! Quick, ladies everywhere!! Rid thee of thy makeup bags, lest they impede your professional progress!

For heaven’s sake.

Having picked my jaw up off the floor I realised my reaction to the articles had been mixed. On the one hand I felt incensed (for reasons I will come on to explain) but I also felt genuinely excited because the articles confirmed something I have long been telling my clients.

That subtle makeup is the new power dressing.


Still from Working Girl film (1988) Melanie Griffith on the phone


What they tested

The study itself was conducted by two graduates at Abertay University in Dundee. Based on what I know from the press commentary I have two initial frustrations:

  • Participants in the study were asked to come to the laboratory to be photographed without makeup. Fine, but how old were they? (judging from the image above, I would say barely twenty?!). What were they wearing? What professions did they operate in?
  • Participants were then asked to “apply the amount of make-up they would wear for an evening socialising.” Any study requires an ‘extreme’ parameter to contrast with less extreme visuals, but even still. Since WHEN has it been appropriate or recommended for a professional, young or old, to arrive at the office wearing the same amount of makeup they would wear on an evening out? You get my point.


Helena Morrisey


Makeup can never be the only factor

There are numerous variables which go into how a person is perceived and I do not believe judgements are made on makeup levels alone.

I like the image of Dame Helena Morrissey above because it perfectly illustrates how a combination of styling, makeup, hair, jewellery and body language are all working together to ultimately affect our visual assessment of her. Even if you did not know who she was, the boldness of the fuchsia (almost neon) cuff, the cross-armed position she has adopted for the photo, her gaze and her defined but balanced makeup and hair collectively suggest an inner confidence acquired over many years working in a corporate environment.

Helena has it pretty much nailed in this photo (being picky there are minor changes I would make to the makeup, including a softer brow and a slightly different lip) but what about those who may not have got the balance right?

Consider, for example, the mature woman, perhaps in a senior role, who dresses immaculately and appropriately for her role and industry but who refrains from wearing any makeup or from styling her hair. How is she perceived?

Or how about the junior employee who arrives at the office wearing a full (evening) face of makeup, complete with lashes and a bold lip? How is she perceived?

Makeup is but one facet of the first filter through which we make a visual assessment of someone and wearing too much or too little can both be a cause for distraction. Isn’t the ultimate goal with workplace attire, regardless of our vocation, to strike a balance?


Sheryl Sandberg


Michelle Obama


Can culture play a role?

Two American studies which feature in Sylvia Ann Hewlitt’s book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success make the following counter claims to the Scottish study:

  • Being polished and groomed is considered by senior leaders as the most important factor when judging ‘top aspects of appearance’ (that is to say, ‘polish and grooming’ rates more highly than physical attractiveness, physique, height and youth; pg 82).
  • Judgements around a person’s competence, likability and trustworthiness are deeply affected by cosmetic choices (Nancy Etcoff, Harvard Medical School).

Quite a contrast from the Scottish findings wouldn’t you say?

Now, I am going to make some sweeping statements of my own here but bear with!

Using hair as an example, there is a reason a weekly ‘blow out’ (blow dry) is more common for our female counterparts in the States than for women on this side of the Atlantic (I am using Sheryl Sandberg and Michelle Obama to demonstrate my point here, albeit rather crudely, given both women are media personalities…but you get the drift).  I would also argue that the preferred office aesthetic for makeup in this country (U.K.) is for more subtle application than say, in the States, or in Spain, where a bolder makeup look is generally the norm (if you are American or Spanish reading this, please feel free to disagree with me!).

As a case in point, a client I worked with recently – a British actress – had recently started to audition for more American roles. She told me her agent had advised her to spend more time on her makeup and hair for American auditions because a more polished look is stereotypically and culturally expected in the U.S.


Natalie James Makeup Artist professional look


A personal choice

Wearing makeup is, of course, a personal choice and no one should have to feel they need to wear makeup.

Personally, I wear makeup for lots of different reasons and it depends very much on the day and who I am meeting:

  • I consider it a sign of respect – For the large part I wear makeup for myself but I also regularly wear it out of respect for the person or persons I am meeting, be they friends, colleagues or clients. Just as I will dress differently for a business meeting compared to meeting a friend for coffee , I will also think about the makeup I am going to wear and will take my lead from what feels right for that situation.
  • When I need it to, makeup dials up my confidence a notch – I am naturally quite a confident person but on days when I am feeling slightly (or majorly) under-par I will invariably reach for a particular item of makeup to give me a little boost. I do not see this as being any different from reciting my favourite mantra or digging out a pair of heels I know will help me to stand just that bit taller.
  • With makeup I can express different sides of my personality – We are not one-sided individuals and like clothing, makeup offers us a chance to dial up certain aspects of our personality when we want those sides to be more visible. My casual ‘no makeup makeup’ look at the weekends is no less ‘me’ than the professional look I wear when meeting clients, but I like the fact I can change it up. Of course, as a makeup artist, making big changes to my makeup comes naturally than perhaps for someone who doesn’t work in the profession, but that is not say a person cannot have one or two items in their makeup arsenal which they reach for on occasions when they want to visually telegraph a more formal or a more relaxed situation.


Makeup for work can be a strategic choice

As we get older and our features become less defined, makeup becomes more of a strategic tool and less of a playful expression of personality – a resource to help us to be seen and heard, whilst eliminating distraction.

Worn subtly in a corporate environment, well applied makeup signals poise, self care and respect for those around us. Worn more boldly in a creative field makeup can help to dial up sides of our personality we want to sing out, as well as a sense of individuality in an already ‘noisy’ space.


In conclusion

The Dundee study and press articles have placed makeup in an overly negative light – and crucially do so without taking into account the many visual cues which go into our often subconscious assessment of others. I worry that the take out for many will be to avoid makeup altogether.

Please don’t!

In my line of work, with clients from numerous sectors, including banking, law, retail, finance, communications and medicine, I have witnessed first hand the transformative power of subtle makeup. The right kind of makeup, applied in the correct way, can subtly disguise a lack of sleep; it can draw out features which, with age, have become less defined; it can signal intent on behalf of the wearer, for example, someone who is about to give a presentation and has adjusted their clothing and grooming to better reflect the sense of occasion etc.

The impact of makeup – like styling, presentation technique or body language – is not to be underestimated and is deserving of our attention.

What are your thoughts on this and the articles? I would love to know! Feel free to tweet me or DM me on Instagram.

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