The high price of being a woman

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"With these clothes, you’ll climb the [business] ladder in style," reads a fashion article in Marie Claire. For women, appearance has a major influence on career success. Body hair, split ends, non-manicured nails -- any one of these could mean seriously risking a woman's integrity as a professional. 

When Quebec Solidaire candidate Manon Massé elected to go for the natural look in her campaign posters, she inspired headlines and a social media storm. For one, Massé was dressed unusually casual for a politician in a jean jacket with her frizzy hair worn down. But what drew the most attention was her upper-lip hair. 

"Wrinkles, stray grey hairs and whiskers above a woman's upper lip aren't usually seen on campaign posters whose subjects are more than often made-up, coiffed and photo-shopped to cinematic perfection," stated an article in the Canadian Press in response to Massé's atypical appearance.

Any fashion blog or lifestyle magazine will tell you that "coiffed" look is essential for a professional woman. Excelle -- part of career website Monster -- informs its female readers: "Women who wear makeup in business generally get better jobs, get promoted more quickly and get paid more."

Massé has since defended her appearance as a political statement, in part against against transphobia: "We are politicians who are very different, we're not here to fit into heterosexual norms."

But the unfortunate reality holds that women are evaluated by their prettiness more than their politics. Both a well-kept beard and a clean-shaven face are acceptable for men in most workplaces, but the slightest suggestion of upper lip hair on a female politician is enough to start a national discussion.

While some men enjoy going the extra mile when it comes to their appearance, those who do not can still project a professional air with minimal effort -- a nice suit and polished shoes is all it takes. Consider eHow's article on how to dress for an interview. The article advises women on everything from proper skirt lengths and styles, to makeup, shoe choices and purse options. Men are simply advised to wear a conservative, high-quality suit. 

The eHow article highlights an inequality that is so universal in our society we barely notice it. It is taken for granted that all women have a closet at home overflowing with shoes, accessories and wardrobe options. Meanwhile, men are comforted by the fact they  "can wear this suit to all or most of your interviews." 

The social pressure on women to maintain their appearance comes at a serious cost. Statistics Canada reportsthat women spent $23 million more than men on their clothing so far this year. The accompanying infographic outlines the high price that women pay for their gender.

Conventional ideas of professionalism also come into conflict with consumer-conscious women. Whether you live a vegan lifestyle, or are concerned with reducing your ecological footprint -- maintaining a conventional business look can be challenging. While there is a growing market for ethically-made clothing and cosmetics, they come at a cost, especially in the makeup department -- eco-conscious products are often double or triple the price of competing brands.

Revlon, for instance, tests its products on animals. Its Custom Eyes Mascara costs $10.99, while a cruelty-free alternative like Urban Decay's Lush Lash mascara costs $20.00.

Ultimately, the link between a woman's appearance and her career success is the result of a combination of factors. Marketing, media and employers all dictate how women must look in order to succeed.

Unfortunately, most women have few alternatives to playing along with these standards. While Massé sets an example for how we can stand apart, few share her unique position to dictate her own dress code.

For now at least, the majority of women have to face the reality that they will be judged more harshly on their appearances than their male counterparts in the business world. 


Jaela Bernstien is a contributing editor for She graduated with Honors from Western University, where she also worked as managing editor for the Western Gazette. Now she lives in Montreal and freelances as a writer, editor and graphic designer.

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