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Heavy Make-Up Signals Weak Leadership

Women can be accepted in positions of power—so long as they go easy on the eye shadow.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many industries and institutions have recognized the importance of having women in leadership positions. A record number of females are running for political office, and, in Hollywood, women are increasingly moving into high-responsibility roles such as director.

If you are a woman with similar aspirations, how can you convey to voters, studio executives, or anyone else that you are are a natural leader? New research from Great Britain offers a timely tip: Don't wear too much make-up.

"Color cues related to make-up have negative effect on perceptions of women's leadership ability," psychologists Esther James, Shauny Jenkins, and Christopher Watkins of Abertay University write in the journal Perception. "These evaluations are consistent among male and female judges, and when judging faces of Caucasian and African ancestry."

The study featured 168 individuals, each of whom evaluated 16 pairs of female faces—eight of them white and eight of them black. Half of the pairs consisted of head shots of the same woman without make-up, and made up "for a night on the town." The cosmetics were applied by either the participants themselves, or a trained make-up artist.

For the other half, the non-make-up photo was paired with one featuring more subtle make-up—roughly 50 percent less than in the fully made-up condition. For each pair, participants judged which photo better conveyed the woman's "leadership ability," and to what degree.

The results were clear: Wearing full make-up "weakened perceived leadership ability." (The more subtle make-up did not.) This proved true "when individuals judged both their own ethnicity- and other-ethnicity faces," the researchers report.

Given previous research that suggests many women "self-apply more make-up than is optimally attractive," this could have real-world ramifications for job-seekers. Heavy make-up appears to send one message to potential romantic partners, and quite another to potential employers—at least if you're in line for a leadership position.

This is a small, first-of-its-kind study. Confirming these results will require them to be replicated, preferable with a large pool of American participants (so we can be sure this reaction isn't United Kingdom-specific).

But if they hold up, the results reveal yet another variable that professional women, but not men, have to take into account as they navigate their careers. Like most biases, this one is without foundation. But just to be safe, perhaps you should be too.