Especially in the workplace, it often seems like people assume there’s a gap between being girly and being serious. Steve Carell articulates that divide clearly in this quote about Mindy Kaling: “Mindy is exceptionally smart, but is not afraid to talk about nail polish,” Carell said. ”And yet, her love of nail polish does not take away from her smartness.” There is nothing inherently dumb about being girly, or liking nail polish. So why does Carell talk about them as opposing forces?
There are a lot of ways to express being a woman. Some include wearing bows, lipstick, and dresses with cartoon cats on them, but some don’t. A lot of the traditional associations with “girl” are problematic and harmful to people who identify as female but don’t follow those roles. For this conversation, I’m using the Wikipedia definition of girly: “Girly. . .is a slang term for a girl or woman who chooses to dress and behave in an especially feminine style, such as wearing pink, using make-up, using perfume [or] dressing in skirts, dresses and blouses.”
Liking nail polish and being smart have nothing to do with each other. Why does Kaling need to be afraid of talking about nail polish? And why does Carell praise her for doing so anyway? Everyone in a workplace wants to be taken seriously, and to be promoted based on merit alone. But there is clearly a perception that if someone wears pink, is interested in makeup, or reads a lot of magazines, she is less focused or less capable. There are plenty of other interests one can express in an office that also have nothing to do with being smart: sports, fitness or travel, for example. But no one will write off the interested party as shallow for expressing them.
So how can a smart girl with a Kate Spade habit address the possibility that she won’t be taken seriously if she expresses her interests in the office? In an ideal workplace, it won’t matter: Your work will be valued on its own merit alone. But in a less than ideal workplace, you very well might be up for a promotion against someone who doesn’t wear pink every day and only reads the Economist. No matter that a person can read both Us Weekly and the Economist each week with no bodily harm. At some point in your career, you may have to address how your expression of self affects how your superiors perceive you.
This choice goes for many facts about a person besides an interest in beauty products and celebrities. As much as we might hope it won’t affect whether people see us positively or negatively, expression of interests or beliefs does shape how people see us. It’s not realistic or fair to expect a person to appear completely inoffensive and bland – especially since different people are offended by different things. So how can someone in the workplace balance being her or his authentic self with the awareness of how it could affect workplace perception?
I think the best way to address these questions is to pursue that ideal workplace: If you are truly being judged on the merit of your work, you will be able to talk about the latest Taylor Swift song or Sunday’s football game and not be taken less seriously for either one. If you’re in a workplace where how you look or what you like to talk about does affect whether people listen to you or not, it’s completely understandable to tone it down with the pink, if you want to.
But consider whether you can change the minds of the people around you. If you kill at the quarterly meeting while wearing polka dots, consider how it will make people think differently about girls in Peter Pan collars and sparkly flats. If they don’t ask you to present at the quarterly meeting because they can’t see past your sparkly flats, it’s not the ideal workplace and you should walk those fabulous feet to a job that appreciates you.
In other words: Don’t be afraid to talk about nail polish. Maybe some day, society will realize being smart and being girly are not at all mutually exclusive.
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