Aesthetic Labour in the Workplace: A Woman’s Burden

Picture this: you’re getting ready for work in the morning. You wake up, shower, put on your clothes, and… go. Sounds normal, right? Well, if you’re a woman working in the corporate sector, the story is a little different.

Women face pressure to maintain their appearance and achieve a certain ‘look’ when it comes to gaining and keeping employment. This phenomenon is not new and has been hindering women in the pursuit of equality since entering the workforce.

Naomi Wolfe’s ‘The Beauty Myth’ draws a parallel between the rise of beauty expectations and the liberation from domesticity. Wolfe explores the idea that women’s liberation has not moved forward, but sideways. The increasing amount of diversity shown in the media indicates that the male gaze has diversified. In doing so it has also gone into hyperdrive and women are paying the price.

These extreme beauty expectations encourage women to pay money to buy the products that will allow them to gain the social capital needed to enter certain industries. Then, once at work, they have to fight to be taken seriously.

Those who have completed Cognicity’s e-learning courseswill know about ‘Backlash’, a type of bias involving negatively reacting to people who don’t conform to the stereotype of their particular social group. Often, women who venture away from traditional feminine stereotypes suffer from backlash, but the sad truth is women still tend to suffer from other forms of bias, such as “Evaluation Bias”, when they do conform as well.

So here, we pose the question: Will women always be damned if they do, and damned if they don’t?

This is seen in other areas of life as well. Women are constantly being categorised as one thing or the other, with no nuances in between. The princess or the porn star, good mother or career woman, feminine or feminist, pretty or smart, beautiful or funny. It is this duality of thought that comes from society’s inability to see women as anything other than two-dimensional.

Not only this, but women are frequently viewed as caregivers, which means avoiding backlash requires a certain level of personality maintenance at work too. In the book ‘Aesthetic Labour’, Ana Elias, Rosalind Hill and Christina Scharff state that the patriarchy expects women to exude just as much ‘inner beauty’ as it does outer. It is argued that women are expected to smile, be nurturing and radiate positivity to meet the criterion for successful womanhood. This affects women at work because it demands more of their emotional and cognitive resources than if they were just allowed to get on with their jobs and makes them subject to unconscious bias, regardless of where they meet these expectations or not.

Rather than women experiencing the second shift at home, they are actually arriving to do their third. Because at work, women don’t just have to do their jobs. They navigate a world in which their value is placed upon non-meritorious attributes like their conforming to feminine stereotypical attributes, and where every choice can be a double-edged sword.

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Article written by Esther Shackleton on behalf of Cognicity.