How do I look? Even during a pandemic, one gender pays a higher 'grooming tax'

The pandemic has presented a rare opportunity to reset expectations on women to look the part
Enaam Gazi al-Aswad, 43, one of the first female drivers hired by the ride sharing company Careem but waiting for Saudi license to be issued by the government, applies lipstick inside her car at a company's office in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. Picture taken June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

One interesting nugget about Kate Winslet's TV show Mare of Easttown was that the actor insisted her body should not be "airbrushed". She persuaded the director to leave her wrinkles and blemishes in place. The response to this was refreshing, as was Winslet's stand. There was an outpouring of admiration from audiences the world over. In an industry that is unkind to ageing, the actor may have given women in a post-pandemic workplace the mental tools to challenge a historical burden: the so-called "grooming tax".

Every working woman instinctively knows that her grooming makes a difference to how she is perceived in the office and faces the challenge of getting it just right. There can be tangible rewards for playing by the rules, just as there can be penalties for choosing to swim against the tide.

Sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner in their 2016 study Gender and the Returns to Attractiveness, found that “attractive workers” have higher incomes than “average-looking workers”. This places a double burden on women – apart from the wage gap between men and women, women also endure a grooming tax, the money routinely invested in make-up, hair and skincare products and accessories. A Groupon study in the US even concluded that the amount of money the average woman spent on grooming over a lifetime could pay for four years of college tuition.

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Men don’t invest as much time and money as women, despite the proliferation of sharp suits and trimmed beards

It does not help that globally, the market plays to women’s insecurities, advertising new beauty gadgets and potions, and promising solutions for everything – from increased confidence to anti-ageing. Findings by the market research group Euromonitor International point to the fact that rising employment rates among women in the Middle East have in turn increased the spending on beauty, so much so that the market for personal care could reach Dh8.8 billion by 2022.

But it is not just about the money. The time spent on grooming regimens directly effects productivity and learning. Back in 2014, journalist and writer Tracey Spicer in her Ted talk spoke about how the average women spent 27 minutes a day getting ready for work. That is the time an average, healthy adult would take to run four kilometres. Ms Spicer also highlighted the clear grooming time gap between men and women. Women spent 3,276 hours over a lifetime. In comparison, men spent only a third of that time at 1,092 hours.

Anecdotal evidence often suggests that men don’t make the same investments of time and money, despite the proliferation of sharp suits and trimmed beards. We’ve all seen how salons charge different prices for haircuts for women and men. But men are not immune from the pressures of grooming. A 2017 Nielsen study The Changing Face of Beauty found that male grooming was on the rise and one of the key drivers was for men “to achieve a competitive edge over other males in career growth”.

Most offices and organisations have dress codes that point to the degree of formality expected. The British actress and journalist Nicola Thorpe refused to wear high heels during a temp job in 2015, drawing much-needed attention to discriminatory dress codes and sparking debates about health, safety and – above all – choice. Looking “professional” may mean different things to different people, and offices should carefully draft their dress codes to ensure that they are advisory in letter and in spirit.

Over the past year, while the pandemic has altered several aspects of working life, technology and virtual meetings have adapted to some of these expectations. Zoom even added a feature last year called "Touch Up My Appearance".

The pandemic has also, however, presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset these expectations. A more balanced approach to dressing could be in the offing – one that does not mandate dress codes in offices but at the same time ensures that employees of both gender dress professionally and appear presentable.

A McKinsey survey revealed a sharp fall in sales across the global beauty industry in the first half of 2020 but also predicted that “a swipe of lipstick before a Zoom meeting” would continue in the long run. This resonates with a Nielsen survey over the summer which found that as countries opened up, sales of cosmetics were up 16.7 per cent year on year.

Most working women don’t have a real choice when it comes to meeting the standards of grooming expected of them, which is why we need more conversations around the pressure that societies across the world unfairly place on women. Even as presentability and professional attire should be expected equally of men and women, we need to dismantle this narrative and burden on women of constantly having to look the part. We can begin to do so by questioning stereotypes and by having informed discussions around the grooming tax.

The decision to invest in grooming should be a matter of personal choice and not an implicit need to "fit in". Perhaps in the post-pandemic workplace, the focus should be less on how you look and a lot more on what you bring to the table.

Published: August 6th 2021, 9:05 AM
Anjali Varma

Anjali Varma

Anjali Varma is a human resources consultant based in Bangalore, India