Study says people think women with makeup on are more competent

“The study was paid for by Procter & Gamble, which sells CoverGirl and Dolce & Gabbana makeup, but researchers like Professor Etcoff and others from Boston University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute were responsible for its design and execution.

The study’s 25 female subjects, aged 20 to 50 and white, African-American and Hispanic, were photographed barefaced and in three looks that researchers called natural, professional and glamorous. They were not allowed to look in a mirror, lest their feelings about the way they looked affect observers’ impressions.

One hundred forty-nine adults (including 61 men) judged the pictures for 250 milliseconds each, enough time to make a snap judgment. Then 119 different adults (including 30 men) were given unlimited time to look at the same faces.

The participants judged women made up in varying intensities of luminance contrast (fancy words for how much eyes and lips stand out compared with skin) as more competent than barefaced women, whether they had a quick glance or a longer inspection.” To read more about the study, click here.

We discussed the new study with Liz Grauerholz, a UCF Sociology Professor, to see what this means. Our discussion is below.

What does this say about society?

That despite advances women have made in the workplace and other domains, they must work incredibly hard to be taken seriously in the workplace. This includes practices that have nothing to do with their actual competence or skill level. It also says something about the unrealistic beauty standards we place on women. No matter where women are, they are pressured to achieve a highly feminized appearance.

When in time would this study not have produced these results?

Women moved into middle-class/office jobs in the mid-20th century, and it is in these workplaces that make-up is likely to be considered part of the “dress code.” As women moved into these positions, no make-up was probably not an option because women were expected to display clear femininity in workplaces. The association between make-up and competence is likely to be a more recent phenomenon (post 1970s) as the option not to wear makeup existed.

Could the results of this study be reversed if society’s ideas changed?

Keep in mind that the makeup-competence link is not a fact, it is a perception, so of course it can (and will) change. Fashion and makeup trends ebb and flow, as do attitudes, shaped by a multitude of social forces.

Do you think this type of study would yield the same results in a different country?

In highly developed, Western societies, there may be similar perceptions, but beauty standards vary widely across cultures. In some cultures, it may be a woman’s age, the length of her neck, skin color, or any number of characteristics, that would determine beauty or competence.

In your opinion, how should society feel about this study?

It’s important that we examine deeply held beliefs about gender (and other systems) and understand how even something as superficial as makeup can affect our attitudes and perceptions. Such awareness can give us pause, encouraging us to consider whether such perceptions are fair and reasonable.

What is your general opinion of this study and of the results?

We should remember that makeup signifies other things and it’s really too simple to conclude that wearing makeup alone creates these perceptions. Makeup can signify social class status (cosmetics is a multi-billion dollar business in the US alone and women must pay a price to look a certain way), youth, sexuality, and so on. It would be important to dig deeper into factors that interplay with makeup to produce perceptions.

Do you have any additional comments or information for readers?

Just that it’s unfortunate that some of women’s hard-earned wages must be spent–not on practices that really matter in the workplace (e.g., education, certifications, job-training)—but on something as superficial as makeup. Let’s not forget that women still earn just 79 cents to every dollar a man makes. Wearing makeup will not remedy that problem—gender (and wage) inequality is deeply ingrained in our society.

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