The Grooming Gap: What “Looking the Part” Costs Women

If women don’t conform to beauty expectations, they’re paid less.

Mindy Isser January 2, 2020

(Illustration by Noa Denmom)

Madi­son, who works a cus­tomer ser­vice job at an air­port spa, has an employ­ee hand­book that says make­up should be well main­tained” and hands and nails must be well man­i­cured.” She says the few men she works with just ignore these guide­lines because they’re meant for women but [it] doesn’t explic­it­ly say that.” Her wages ($13.25 per hour + 15% retail com­mis­sion) do not include addi­tion­al pay to pur­chase man­i­cures or make­up. Dur­ing her inter­view, her now-boss com­ment­ed on how nice her make­up looked and how well her shoes matched her purse — com­ments that make her feel like she needs to keep up that kind of appear­ance even though she already has the job.

The grooming gap also results in a loss of free time: 55 minutes each day for the average woman, the equivalent of two full weeks each year.

It’s well known that a per­sis­tent wage gap exists for women work­ers in the Unit­ed States, a gap that becomes even wider when race, indus­try, age and geog­ra­phy are tak­en into account. But less fre­quent­ly dis­cussed is the often silent expec­ta­tion around appear­ance imposed on women work­ers, which has its own finan­cial costs — known as the groom­ing gap.” The groom­ing gap refers to the set of social norms regard­ing groom­ing and appear­ance for women, includ­ing the time women work­ers must spend to con­form to these norms and the mate­r­i­al con­se­quences it has on their lives.

We’ve all heard the com­mon advice to look the part” at work. For men, that can often just mean busi­ness casu­al cloth­ing and a short hair­cut. For women, it can mean hours spent each week on make­up, hair styling and curat­ing an out­fit that’s both attrac­tive and professional.

The rules are usu­al­ly unspo­ken; even when employ­ers do not explic­it­ly require work­ers to wear make­up, for exam­ple, women work­ers often feel required to wear it anyway.

They’re not wrong: Soci­ol­o­gists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Pen­ner found that phys­i­cal­ly attrac­tive work­ers have high­er incomes than aver­age-look­ing work­ers, but that this rela­tion­ship is elim­i­nat­ed when con­trol­ling for groom­ing in women. In oth­er words, if you pur­chase the right clothes, make­up and hair­cut, high­er wages are more with­in reach. It’s true that men need to abide by cer­tain groom­ing rules, too, but they are less com­plex, less expen­sive and less time con­sum­ing. Men’s hair­cuts, for exam­ple, often cost much less than women’s hair­cuts — regard­less of hair length. The groom­ing gap essen­tial­ly con­sti­tutes a pay cut catch-22: If women don’t con­form, they are paid less; if they do con­form, they’re expect­ed to use those high­er wages on beau­ty prod­ucts and groom­ing regimens.

Groom­ing costs for women can be extreme­ly expen­sive; the glob­al beau­ty indus­try, val­ued at $532 bil­lion world­wide, directs aggres­sive adver­tis­ing toward women to con­vince them they need to pur­chase a whole host of prod­ucts to have a chance at being beau­ti­ful, well-liked or suc­cess­ful. The indus­try relies on main­tain­ing impos­si­ble expec­ta­tions around women’s looks so it can con­tin­ue to rake in enor­mous prof­its. One 2017 study found the aver­age woman puts $8 worth of prod­uct on her face each day; anoth­er found the aver­age woman spends up to $225,000 on skin­care and make­up dur­ing her life­time. And then there’s the pink tax”: Stud­ies con­firm that, 42% of the time, prod­ucts mar­ket­ed to women are more expen­sive than com­pa­ra­ble prod­ucts tar­get­ed to men.

The groom­ing gap also results in a loss of free time: 55 min­utes each day for the aver­age woman, the equiv­a­lent of two full weeks each year. Sara Nel­son, pres­i­dent of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants-CWA (AFACWA), says that, in her indus­try — a work­force that is 79.3% women — the expec­ta­tion around appear­ance lit­er­al­ly inter­rupts your sleep”: Flight atten­dants get min­i­mal rest between flights, and that rest time is fur­ther shrunk because they are expect­ed to appear per­fect­ly coifed” before their next flight. Nel­son says that all of her groom­ing tasks took 30 – 40 min­utes each day (more than two hours in a five-day work week). Madi­son agrees: it takes her 45 min­utes to do her make­up and style her hair before her 7 a.m. shift — and she wakes up at 5 a.m. to get it all done. Pri­or to this job, Madi­son says she worked at the beau­ty depart­ment at Tar­get, where she spent $200 on prod­ucts every oth­er week.

Restau­rant and hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers are per­haps hard­est hit by the groom­ing gap, as they rely on tips to sur­vive. When I was a barista in 2010 – 2011, the only offi­cial dress code rule was to wear closed-toed shoes, for safe­ty. Still, I knew I had to show up look­ing pret­ty to pay the rent; I made less than $10 an hour and I need­ed the tips.

Katie, 36, a vet­er­an bar­tender and serv­er in Fort Smith, Ark., says at her cur­rent job, it’s under­stood” she should wear make­up. At a pre­vi­ous restau­rant, a man­ag­er even told her and her cowork­ers they would make bet­ter tips if [they] wore makeup.”

Based on my own appear­ance — weight fluc­tu­a­tions, make­up ver­sus no make­up, jew­el­ry ver­sus no jew­el­ry — there’s a def­i­nite dif­fer­ence,” Katie says. She adds that she was passed over for the most lucra­tive bar­tend­ing shifts at her pre­vi­ous job after over­hear­ing her man­agers say they want­ed cuter girls” to bar­tend instead.

Mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar indus­tries also mar­ket fad diets and anti-aging prod­ucts to women. Both Katie and Jee­va, 24, a bar­tender and mem­ber of UNITE HERE, the union rep­re­sent­ing hos­pi­tal­i­ty, hotel and air­port work­ers, wor­ry about aging. As you get old­er, as a female bar­tender, your tips can go down,” Jee­va says. Katie says she hope[s] to leave [the ser­vice indus­try] in the next 10 years, before I get too ugly.”

The groom­ing gap’s effects are com­pound­ed for women of col­or. Accord­ing to Restau­rant Oppor­tu­ni­ty Cen­ter, restau­rant own­ers look for work­ers who are clean-cut, [have] good hygiene or a pro­fes­sion­al appear­ance, all poten­tial code words for race.” For instance, Black women spent $473 mil­lion on relax­ers, weaves and oth­er hair care in 2017, in part because of racist ideas that nat­ur­al Black hair is not pro­fes­sion­al or attrac­tive. Black work­ers annu­al­ly spend nine times more on hair and beau­ty prod­ucts than oth­er workers.

For trans­gen­der women, too, there can be an added lay­er of work, stress and self-con­scious­ness. Autumn, who tran­si­tioned while at her cur­rent pub­lish­ing job in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., says she quick­ly real­ized how much time and ener­gy it takes to per­form fem­i­nin­i­ty for work. She used to spend 20 min­utes to get ready in the morn­ing, but now takes at least 45 min­utes. Autumn adds, I have to do things that cis women don’t have to… [but] it’s got­ten eas­i­er with time and prac­tice,” like tuck­ing and deal­ing with facial hair. Because she presents extreme­ly femme, Autumn says she hasn’t dealt with enforce­ment around her appear­ance, but oth­er women work­ers around the coun­try have been dis­ci­plined and even fired for appear­ing insuf­fi­cient­ly fem­i­nine. Women work­ers have sued—and won—over gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion that man­i­fests as attrac­tive­ness discrimination.

Nat, a trans woman who works at a union in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., area, says, I didn’t feel like I was allowed to be a woman if I liked mas­cu­line things. It delayed any kind of self-reflec­tion” about gen­der and iden­ti­ty for such a long time.”

At work and in the world, all women — cis and trans — feel the pres­sure to con­form to nor­ma­tive stan­dards of fem­i­nin­i­ty and attrac­tive­ness. But the solu­tion to this prob­lem isn’t to throw away all the eye­shad­ow or take out a new line of cred­it for week­ly man­i­cures. The solu­tion is to orga­nize together.

Build­ing your union in the work­place is also about tack­ling the social issues that are direct­ly applic­a­ble to your eco­nom­ic expe­ri­ence,” says Nel­son. Because they were orga­nized and had a voice in management’s ear, AFA-CWA flight atten­dants were able to relax and mod­ern­ize aspects of their dress code. Pri­or to 2006, new­ly hired female flight atten­dants were required to attend a one-day train­ing with a make­up artist (while men had the day off). Women were also encour­aged to buy make­up if they didn’t have any, since female flight atten­dants were required to wear make­up. There are still appear­ance stan­dards that put a greater bur­den on women than men,” says Nel­son, but there’s no longer a make­up train­ing day, and no require­ment to buy or wear makeup.

Because the vast major­i­ty of union con­tracts include lan­guage around wages, pro­mo­tions, dis­ci­pline and fir­ing, the ways in which union­ized women work­ers move up (or down) in a com­pa­ny are clear. They don’t have to won­der if they’re being pushed out because their boss doesn’t like the way they look — every infrac­tion must be doc­u­ment­ed and explained. And because union work­ers receive rais­es based on senior­i­ty, gen­dered gaps around wages and pro­mo­tions are far less like­ly, which gives women work­ers more free­dom to ignore unspo­ken pres­sures around groom­ing, and a vehi­cle to fur­ther expand their rights at work.

Regard­less of whether a work­place is union­ized, work­ers can still orga­nize to chal­lenge gen­der inequity on the job. There’s a nascent move­ment around orga­niz­ing for work­ers to be paid wages for time spent com­mut­ing to work, since com­mut­ing is a neces­si­ty. The same could be said of the groom­ing that women do before leav­ing for work. Work­ing women, in unions and out­side of them, could orga­nize around extra com­pen­sa­tion for women’s groom­ing prod­ucts, as well as the time spent apply­ing them; Madi­son sug­gests a stipend.” Women work­ers also could fight against the tipped min­i­mum wage, which invites pay dis­crim­i­na­tion based on appear­ance and which pre­dom­i­nant­ly affects women.

Ulti­mate­ly, social under­stand­ings of beau­ty and the many ways they impact women’s work­ing con­di­tions are just a piece of a big­ger, sys­temic prob­lem: the larg­er impacts of a patri­ar­chal society’s effects on women. Women are con­stant­ly bom­bard­ed with adver­tise­ments and images of the ide­al woman: thin, white, cis and beau­ti­ful — ideals that, of course, car­ry over into the work­place. The vast major­i­ty of women do not fit into these nar­row, nor­ma­tive arche­types of beau­ty, and they can lose out finan­cial­ly because of them. But there are clear ways to orga­nize at work around these issues: by form­ing unions or by stand­ing togeth­er and fight­ing for leg­is­la­tion that ends the gen­der pay gap and the tipped min­i­mum wage.

Clos­ing the groom­ing gap and engag­ing in the strug­gles that will be need­ed to fun­da­men­tal­ly chal­lenge these exploita­tive sys­tems — in and out of the work­place — will not be easy. But when has the fight to cre­ate the world we deserve ever been easy?

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
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