By Amanda Lepof

 

“I love your haircut.”

“Doesn’t she have a nice smile?”

“She’s wearing a pretty color, while the rest of us women are dressed in black.”

These are perfectly nice things to hear, but depending on when they’re said at work, can compliments be a subtle form of gender discrimination?

I’ve actually heard each of these. Here’s the context:

  • The haircut compliment: Walking into a room full of executives – some I know well, some I do not – the first comment that greeted me was, “I love your haircut.” I was there as the subject matter expert.
  • The smile compliment: While introducing me as an executive speaker, a webinar facilitator saw my photo on screen and said, “Doesn’t she have a nice smile?”
  • The clothing compliment: As I was taking my place on a panel of experts at a conference, another panelist comments to the entire room on the color of my top.

In all cases I have to agree. I was having a great hair day thanks to that new haircut. My smile does look nice in my head shot. My yellow top is really lovely.

Even so, these comments left me rattled, disappointed, and feeling like I was at a disadvantage. I couldn’t stop wondering—would people take the substance of what I had to say seriously? Or were they only thinking of me as the woman with a good haircut, a nice smile, or colorful top? When it comes time for advancement opportunities, would I be seriously considered or passed over?

I believe the compliments were well intended and paid by people with whom I have friendly professional relationships, but the context troubled me. I was there to share my expertise, to be listened to and respected – not have my appearance evaluated. And I don’t think I’m alone. Professional women are often judged on a different scale than their male counterparts:

  • Serena Williams’ catsuit controversy was covered at the expense of her tennis game.
  • Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits were covered seemingly as much as her platforms on the campaign trail.
  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ appearance is evaluated regularly by the media and her colleagues.

When we judge women on their appearance instead of their skills and competence it can be harder for them to advance, and here’s one of the many reasons it matters. According to Forbes, in 2017-2018:

So, what do we do as women in the workplace?

Firstly, be conscious of when we pay each other compliments. In my examples, two of the three compliments came from women. One-on-one, I would have thought they were being friendly, but not in a setting when I needed to be perceived as an authority and subject matter expert.

Secondly, when you receive a compliment in a setting that feels uncomfortable, speak up. Direct the conversation back to your content, and let the person know you’d prefer to be judged on your competence, not your appearance. If you feel uncomfortable speaking up, recruit someone else to help. In one case I tapped into a trusted mentor to provide feedback on my behalf, which was highly effective.

There’s no reason to stop looking your best at work if that’s your choice, but when it comes to advancement opportunities, let’s make sure we are evaluating women on substance and not simply style.

 

Amanda Lepof joined the American Red Cross in May 2003 and
currently works as the Executive Director of Corporate Programs
focusing on Corporate fundraising strategy. Prior to that, Amanda worked to advance diversity and equity in higher education, authoring pieces in On Campus With Women and Diversity Digest – both publications of the Association for American Colleges & Universities. She graduated from Vanderbilt University (B.S.) and Georgetown University (M.A.L.S.) and is from Cincinnati, Ohio. She’s lived in the DC area for over 15 years and currently resides in the north Georgetown area with her husband Clint. Amanda served the B.A. Rudolph Foundation by supervising a 2018 scholar during her internship.

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