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Folasade Owoeye: Why Do We Continually Ask Pretty Girls to Prove their Worth in the Workplace?

Folasade Owoeye

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I was having lunch with a friend when the name of one of his co-workers popped up in our conversation. I was fairly acquainted with the lady he mentioned, and I told him a few things I knew about her. I spoke of how she was a high flyer right from her school days, how she earned a double promotion on her former job, how she emerged as the highest scoring candidate in an international certification exam. Generally, she is a well-grounded all-rounder.

I was initially amused at my friend’s facial expression to the things I told him about his co-worker, but my amusement soon turned sour when all he could mumble was – “with the amount of foundation she wears on her face every day, I’m surprised she has all these achievements”.

*Deep sigh*

I masked my brewing annoyance behind a smile and asked him what he meant by the statement. He then explained that it was quite difficult for him to reconcile the “slay queen” image with her academic and professional achievements. I was eager to help him summarize his thoughts “smart girls don’t typically look like that right?”
He nodded in agreement. “Well it’s not like if you look nice and fashionable, you are automatically dumb, it’s just that it’s easier to stereotype attractive girls like that into a particular mold than to see them as high performers on the job. Somewhere at the back of your mind, you wonder – if she puts this much effort into her appearance, how would she be that focused on the job?

I ruminated over the conversation with my friend for quite a while and decided to ask several of my female co-workers what they thought of it and if they had faced such similar situations.

Naya, my no-nonsense colleague, was quite blunt in her response. “It’s a male thing” she said. A guy sees an attractive looking lady and the first thing that goes through his mind is “that’s one hot babe and not ooh…that’s one smart looking professional.
Come to think of it, why is it that when a guy dresses fashionably and smart, we are quick to assume that he must be good on the job however, if a lady dresses fashionably to work and cleans up real good, we are quick to label her as a slay queen, and a likely average performer?” Naya concluded by saying, “at the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of every woman to prove her worth in the workplace.

I would hear those words again at a career development event where a practice head addressed the issue of sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace. I was keen to hear his take on the subject, being a man with so many years of experience in the same profession I was in. He started by issuing a disclaimer, stating that there was no justification for the sexist or inappropriate behavior of men to women in the workplace. He, however, emphasized the need for women to be a lot more assertive in the workplace. I’ve done my best to summarise his words that day:
Men will always be men. You can’t change a man’s instinctive reaction to your appearance and frankly, you have no business with that. Your responsibility as a female professional dealing with all sorts of men in the industry is to maintain your stand and prove your worth.

On hearing that phrase again, I leaned forward in my chair and listened with rapt attention. He continued, “Don’t be the pretty girl that goes for a client meeting and has nothing to contribute. Don’t be that girl that dresses indecently to work and then cries foul when her co-workers don’t take her seriously. Don’t ever give anyone the impression that your male colleague can handle a task better than you just because he is male. You will be doing yourself and your other female colleagues a disservice. Never use your appearance as a selling point when engaging a client or dealing with your colleagues. In a workplace where the reward system isn’t merit-based, your looks may take you far, but it certainly won’t keep you there. At the end of the day, everyone is valued based on the problems they are able to solve or by the quality of work they deliver.”

He then shared the experience of one of his protégés who was a senior manager in a consulting firm. She had worked hard for weeks on a client proposal and was invited by the client’s executive management team to make a presentation on the proposal. Some minutes before her team was called in for the pitch, one of the clients top management staff called her aside and advised her to allow her male colleague to make the presentation. She was flustered at his explanation that her good looks would be a distraction to the all-male executive management team and they may not concentrate on what she was saying. Thankfully, the lady was assertive enough to explain that she was the one who worked on the proposal and had a good grasp of the solution they were offering the client. Her male colleague who had significantly fewer years of experience would be unable to respond to the client’s queries. She then went on to deliver her proposal presentation successfully and closed the deal with the client.

Months into executing the project, the same man who advised her to allow her male colleague make the presentation, called her to his office and apologized to her for his statements, stating that she had earned his respect from her ability to execute the challenging project effectively.

The room was quiet that day as we all took in the words he said that day. I hurriedly scribbled in the corner of my notepad “prove your worth”.

Ps: I asked my friend that day at lunch if he also thought I wasn’t as smart based on my looks and his response was: “I would have made that kind of assumption too, but your face is too strong for that”.

*Deep deep sigh*

Photo Credit: Benzoix | Dreamstime.com

17 Comments

  1. ynaij

    February 26, 2018 at 10:35 am

    the reason why is because unfortunately some pretty girls have used their attractiveness rather than intelligence to get ahead in their careers. its simply the path of least resistance to the top by SOME not all pretty women. they use their sexuality to manipulate weak willed men to do their biddings to get to the apex of the work.

  2. Bee

    February 26, 2018 at 11:40 am

    i dont think it’s a male thing, even females feel the same way about their colleagues and think she only got the promotion because of her looks. it is shallow but sadly it even goes beyond the work place to women running businesses succesfully but other women feel she must have a “sponsor” somewhere (i am sometimes guilty of this but i quickly get it off my mind)
    i for one like to show off in my office when i do better than them even with my long eyelashes and plenty foundation I would not call it “proving your worth” i will actually prove them wrong of their shallow minds

    • jade

      February 27, 2018 at 2:23 pm

      Women have it worse, compete against one another the most. If you have a woman as your boss, it’s like hell. You have to constantly prove your intelligence, independence, and your worth. From random attitude, to judging the way you dress and carry yourself

    • Enchanting Naturals

      February 28, 2018 at 6:54 pm

      I wish I can vote you’re answer twice or no.. 12 times. D curse of beauty….

  3. MurderSheWrote

    February 26, 2018 at 1:11 pm

    First of all, define “pretty”. I feel it’s so vague.

  4. whocares

    February 26, 2018 at 2:06 pm

    this is interesting actually as my friend and i have discussed this at length. It goes back to that idea that smart people have to be less attractive, less put together because they are so busy being smart, they don’t have time to look beautiful or sexy (this is an assumption for both men and women). This is an interesting angle to patricachy you have brought up. Women are priced either on their looks or their brains, rarely so together, and if its together it is always with a air of surprise and over compensation.. like OMG SHE IS BEAUTIFUL AND INTELLIGENT? RING THE ALARM!!!!!!! lool. How stupid is that? A man is handsome, charismatic etc- he is immediately seen as leadership material. A woman is beautiful, charismatic she is initially seen as unprofessional until further notice!!
    I think Chimamanda’s fashion project is important not only because of its relation to Nigerian dsigners, but I have always felt it was a way for her to show someone as intelligent as her can and is stylish, sexy, and beautiful, and unapologetically so. This is not a narrative that has gained momentum as the “norm”- women still have to prove that they can wield a makeup brush as easy as they can wield a pen because God forbid we also have a personal life and style as well as a profession.
    As a personal choice, i don’t wear makeup to work, but that is because I enjoy my skin feeling fresh etc. That is my choice, within my profession I am happy I haven’t come across such nonsense (mine is the reverse as I look so young, i have to inform my client’s that I am indeed – years old and I have a lot more experience than my face shows).. In all honesty, nothing much can be done about this for now until society changes as a WHOLE. It is for every woman to slap down this narrative whenever it is presented to them. Don’t support it, dont put down a fellow woman for coming to work looking gorgeous with makeup on point, heels, hair laid back etc.. That is her decision and she put in that work; celebrate that and build a sister up! I am tired of people trying to define women’s experiences, and I have zero tolerance for these types of conversation as a matter of fact.its 2018, we should be doing better on some front and some conversations need to be dead on arrival!

    • Fola Owoeye

      February 28, 2018 at 6:02 pm

      Your comment is everything! You summarized the crux of the article perfectly.

  5. Tasmea

    February 26, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    Pretty is subjective! Who you think is pretty might not be so to your other collegue. Case in point, in my previous place of work, there was this dark skinned girl that I thought and still think is breathtakingly gorgeous. Gaddddammit! She was beautiful to the boots. Myself and few other collegues thought that way. I actually thought everybody thought that way.Now we went out for drinks(something I despise but had to do because of office “politics”) and then they started discussing about who was trying to date who and all that. Somebody said a collegue was trying to date this Sudanese girl and in my mind I’m like who won’t. Another collegue made a statement after he heard it. He said “he really does seem to have a knack for girls who don’t just cut it beauty wise.” The collegue that apparently informed us agreed with him. I was stunned and I was thinking am I blind or are they blind? If the said girl got a promotion, what would you attribute it to? Someone in my camp would have said beauty and another would say she definitely worked hard. It’s all subjective. There is no such thing as objective beauty. Everybody one way or the other has to prove themselves.

    • Pat

      February 26, 2018 at 5:22 pm

      First off if the guys that said she wasn”t pretty were Black. Then Kolo Mentality according to Fella is worry them. If they were Caucasians what do u expect from most of them even they can see what is so glaring. Majority of the Sudanese girls I have met / seen are gorgeous with great body shape they looks sculptured like God took time created them.

  6. Akara Pancake

    February 26, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    I feel your pain, but it is a generalization.

    Truth be told, many times the reverse case actually happens. There have been many instances I have seen what I thought was a very beautiful female based on her physical attributes. And then she started to talk, and as I learnt more about her attitude, beliefs, manner and characteristics, and all of a sudden, she looked like the most unattractive woman in the world.

    For example, Serena Williams is not an example of many people’s standard of beauty. But to me, she is one of the most attractive women in the public eye. Hard work, humility, self-belief and poise will take you very far – looks are just fleeting. For me Serena is more attractive than Beyonce, Kim K or whoever the last flavour of the month is,

    Besides, like the poster above pointed, pretty is a vague term. The Nigerian standards of beauty are not the same as say, England or France. However what is universally respected and recognized is hardwork, commitment and sacrifice.

  7. Nel

    February 26, 2018 at 5:54 pm

    I will just say that your colleague is very shallow, that’s all. It is quite common place. For me, i like to look nice and dress appropriately. I just face front and do my job. i don’t have time to prove anything to any male colleague. if you have sense, you will know who has some intellect when they open their mouth

    on the other hand, dressing provocatively (showing excess cleavage, tight fitting club-like outfits) to work, automatically has people thinking all sorts about you. i had a peer like that once. a friend asked me “what she was selling at work” too sexual in appearance until the MD told her she was not maximising her potential and should move to sales. the way her dressing changed overnight was just too funny.

  8. Lynn

    February 26, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    Interesting read.
    I for one, don’t think i have anything to “prove”… I think i’m actually better fulfilled when i look like a pretty doll..and still get my job done perfectly.
    Focus on setting standards for your own self…and surpassing those standards everytime. Keep blowing their minds away..that’s the dream?

  9. tunmi

    February 26, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    There is pretty privilege and there is also pretty bias…

    It’s people who are insecure about themselves that seem to find fault in others whether it’s their gender, race, or prettyness

  10. Dr.N

    February 26, 2018 at 10:37 pm

    All I saw was “your face is too strong…”
    What is that?
    ???
    Some people have a knack of biting criticism.

    To the topic, it won’t take long for ladies to undo the damage our helpless female sheroes did to women in the workplace by failing to bank on tjeot talent. Already the stereotype is flailing and soon it will be level ground. Mark my words

    I reading this by the way. You write in an engaging style

    • Fola Owoeye

      February 28, 2018 at 6:06 pm

      Thanks Dr N. I am a fan of your write ups as well.

  11. Ada

    February 28, 2018 at 6:07 pm

    That last paragraph. Lmao. Very interesting piece

  12. Mo

    February 28, 2018 at 7:22 pm

    Love the comment about “maximizing your potential”…it’s hilarious!

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