Friday, September 30, 2011

Is My Lipstick Smeared?

In episode 11 of the 4th season of the television series, Mad Men, Peggy gives a presentation to Playtex executives.  Before she gets to the conference room, one of her male colleagues (she had earlier rebuffed) notices that her lipstick is smeared on her teeth.  He doesn't warn her.  She gives her presentation, failing to notice that people are trying to alert her to the lipstick problem.  Later, someone breaks the news to her.  Her colleague just smiles.

If you are unfamiliar with this TV series, it is set in the 1960's New York and focuses on an advertising agency. Although the show revolves around Don Draper (the main ad man), there are lots of episodes and scenes that deal with women working in a male-dominated world.

I was reminded of this show and the scene described above during a conversation with a colleague.

I was talking with this male colleague about a women-in-science group that I sometimes attend.  He inquired about what we were discussing this semester, and I mentioned that one topic I hoped to address was leadership styles.  He soon began talking about several university administrators who happened to be women and mentioned something that he observed one of them doing at meetings.  Apparently, this woman would walk into the conference room, sit down, open her purse, and begin to carefully apply lipstick. When finished with her makeup, she would call the meeting to order. 

My initial response was something along the lines of, "Hmmm. That's interesting.  I wonder why she did that?  Most women would apply lipstick (those who wear it) in private." We were interrupted by the arrival of some other people, so I did not have a chance to question this colleague further about why he mentioned this particular example during a discussion of women in leadership positions.

I later thought more carefully about this conversation...not about why a woman in a high position would call attention to the fact that she was a woman by conspicuously applying makeup (I suspect she was oblivious to how this looked to others), but how my colleague interpreted this behavior.  

One might dismiss the lipstick observation as an offhand, unimportant remark.  However, it clearly made an impression on this colleague, who was obviously critical of this woman and offered this up as an example of her poor judgement.  It reminded me of critical comments made about a woman's physical appearance or other attributes that have no bearing on their professional capabilities. 

This colleague is married to a professional woman who is very successful and highly regarded.  Consequently, I figured that he was making a statement about how women need to be careful (in dress and behavior) to avoid calling negative attention to their gender in professional settings.  Perhaps he was leading up to a suggestion that our discussion group counsel the younger members about inappropriate behavior?  Or maybe he did think that this woman's lipstick habit indicated an overall incompetence in chairing meetings? I'm not sure.

Women can call attention to their gender unintentionally, especially when nervous.  Some women play with their hair or jewelry, which is acceptable in a social setting, but might send unintended signals in a professional setting.  Men seem to be particularly alert (consciously or subconsciously) to sexual signals.  Lipstick, which has an interesting history by the way, is a sexual signal (although its sexual connotations are not always recognized).  I think this is why my colleague noticed it, but I doubt that he realized why it was so memorable.  I also doubt that the female administrator was aware of this either (and would probably be mortified if someone pointed it out to her).

I know that some women dismiss such concerns about dress and behavior, saying that they should be judged on their professional capabilities rather than their wardrobe or personal quirks. However, the fact that this senior male faculty member had noticed the lipstick application, remembered it years later, and pointed it out to me (in the context of women in leadership positions) suggests that women are still being judged inappropriately, even by men who are generally supportive of women.

Photo Credit: AMC, Mad Men, still image of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)

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