Glass Slippers Glass Ceiling

Does Being Girly Mean You Won’t Be Taken Seriously at Work?

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.

Featured image via Shutterstock

  • Sabrina Marie Condon

    I found it interesting that you chose to write on this, when just last week a story was released from by the US Army in which a (female) Colonel made the statement: “In general, ugly women are perceived as competent while pretty women are perceived as having used their looks to get ahead” and then went on to say that because of that they should not use pretty women in Army ads. It also goes on to undermine women who choose to wear makeup by implying that it sends the message that a broken nail should be considered a “hazardous” duty. Coming from a female who has done numerous combat deployments, I can tell you that you can only dress like a man and work like a man for so many months without needing to express your femininity in some form, which many do with makeup.

  • Marissa Lattanzio

    THIS is the struggle I’ve had for years! I come from a family of strong, but not the most “girly” women. They take care of themselves and know how to dress up, but they don’t enjoy that stuff quite as much as I do. Basically, my interest in wearing anything other than jeans and a baggy band t shirt has been all post high school. But since then I have found such a LOVE of all things considered “girly”. Make up, anything pastel, sparkly things, bows on everything.. it’s been a gradual change, but I’m at the point where I want my entire wardrobe to resemble Jess’s from New Girl!

    The effect I feel most at work is the “babying” effect. I also as a lot of questions to my leaders.. but that’s just in my nature, I’m smart, but I will ask detailed, even hypothetical questions because I want to know things inside and out. And for the most part, my co workers accept that this is just who I am.. a talkative and very feminine girl who does her job well. But there are those (who aren’t my leaders, but rather, they’re my peers) who take things a lot more seriously and if I say something frivolous or silly around them, they look at me like I disgust them. They feel the need to watch what I do like a hawk, and jump on any mistake I make. And I’m also one who will admit I’ve made a mistake, they don’t need to point it out to everyone, because trust me – I will! They treat me as if I’m weak and unintelligent… and almost as if my input is somewhat insignificant. You know when you’re trying to bake with children and tell them, “I need you to do the very important job of putting everything back in the refrigerator when I tell you to” because you don’t want them to make a mess? That’s how they treat me. It really hurts,. If they would rather only talk about every serious matter, I’ll listen sympathetically… but that’s not what I focus on, especially at work.

    Some people would rather spend 15 minutes reading the newspaper or reading a book or any other number of things. It doesn’t make me any less smart or serious about what I do, just because I choose to use that time to put on makeup in the morning. My job requires me to not wear nail polish, but you bet that on my 3 day weekend coming up there will be red, green and gold sparkles covering these nails – and that makes me so excited! And there will be an instagram of them wrapped around a Starbucks red cup! And I talk about this at work because it’s stuff that makes me happy! We wear unflattering outfits at work, so I’ll dream out loud about the outfit I’ll wear after work, or how I’m going to paint my nails when I have off or know all the words to Demi Lovato songs and serenade people with them by the vending machine in the break room. And guess what, I did really well in college and got a promotion 3 months into this job, and landed interviews for 2 new jobs next week! *mic drop*

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