A reader writes;
I am a 30-year-old feminist raised by hippies. I’m in a reasonably mainstream field that is fairly male-dominated. With lots of work over many years, I am now competent at basic hygiene and professional dress, mostly. I can do business clothes of any level. I shave my pits and any leg anyone might see.
But I am about to graduate grad school and started to read your awesome blog and now realize I am so lost on some of the finer details when it comes to necessary grooming for an office job or interview. Specifically, I don’t do any makeup. I mean none. No chapstick, no eyeliner, nothing. I’m reasonably confident about that decision. But I’m lost at eyebrows. Do I really need to “manage” them in order to have a reasonable chance of landing a job? If I do, why don’t my male peers? More relevantly, if I do what is the minimum I can get away with? This is not something I want to spend a lot of time or money on, but I will feel ridiculous if I lose a professional opportunity over my eyebrows. Similarly with pimples. I get maybe one a month — am I expected to do something about it? Or fingernails — aside from being clean, what are the requirements?
I do have female friends, but most of them are programmers and don’t have to worry about these things so much. Many of them don’t own blazers. Help me?
There are some fields where grooming matters more than others. For example, if you’re going into some types of PR or sales, there would be more pressure on you to conform to a certain standard of “polish.” On the other hand, if you’re an engineer, there’s going to be way less of it and possibly none.
What people mean by polish varies, but these are usually the basics:
* some amount of makeup, but it can be fairly minimal (often the goal is to look like a slightly more awake version of yourself, not for people to notice the makeup itself … and god help you if you go slightly over the arbitrary line of what people consider “too much”)
* groomed eyebrows (which can just mean trimming them if they’re unruly, although some people will take it further and pluck/wax/shape them)
* clean hair that’s neatly styled and, if it’s long, is pulled back and out of your face
* clean, well shaped fingernails (which really just means they aren’t overly long and don’t have ragged edges or chipped nail polish)
That doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed in “polish”-oriented fields without makeup or with slightly bushy eyebrows! You can, and people do. But there’s often more pressure within those fields to conform to a particular image, especially when you’re either just starting out or trying to move up. People have biases, and it can be easier to be seen as “the sort of person who will do well here” when you match a certain image they have of who those people are. Sometimes that’s because their clients really do respond better to a particular image (real estate, for example, is notorious for this) and sometimes it’s not based on much of anything at all. (If you’re thinking this sounds primed for unconscious racial and other forms of bias, you are correct.)
It is very, very unlikely that someone is going to reject you for a job because you have unruly eyebrows. But all of these details do go into painting an overall picture of you, and we do all have unconscious biases in how we respond to other people. In general, a professional standard of grooming will help you come across as more polished, and in general that will help employers in many fields respond to you better. But it’s not like choosing not to bother with your eyebrows will doom you to a lifetime of unemployment either. It’s just one detail. If you’re not in a particularly appearance-focused field, as long as you’re paying attention to the rest of your physical presentation — like wearing professional, well-fitting clothes and unscuffed shoes and not walking in with a purple and green macrame backpack with a big hole in it, etc. — you’re probably going to be fine. (I might lean a little more into those other details if you’re not doing makeup, but either way you should be fine.)