I’ll never forget the day I arrived at a job interview with my hair dyed black with a subtle hint of blue. I didn’t think it would be an issue at a supposedly young and innovative media company, but my interviewer couldn’t see past my hair to my qualifications. Instead of listening to my responses to her questions, she looked at me like I flew into the interview from outer space and our conversation ended after only 15 minutes.
On top of my quirky personal style, I’m also visibly queer and introverted, and my body naturally fidgets to cope with stress and anxiety. On job interviews, I tend to be hyper conscious about how I’m perceived, no matter how capable I’d be at the job.
My friends who identify as women are also routinely judged and even humiliated for things that have nothing to do with their work or qualifications. One friend recently mentioned that a hiring manager told her that her black sweater was too “form-fitting.” Another, who identifies as butch, claims that she was urged by a mentor to paint her nails for job interviews.
The harsh reality is that oftentimes, skills come second to appearance. Out of a recent survey examining the attitudes of 500 hiring professionals, the female job seeker most likely to be selected for hire based on photos only was a thin, Caucasian brunette. Only 15.6 percent of hiring professionals surveyed would consider hiring the heaviest job seeker, about the same number who would consider hiring a frowning woman. Meanwhile, only 29.2 percent of hiring professionals would consider hiring an older woman. Additionally, the hiring professionals surveyed favored women of their own race. For women, interview etiquette seems to be: always smile, be perpetually youthful, never not diet, and make sure your interviewer looks and acts exactly like you. Sounds reasonable, right?
Since I related to these statistics on a personal level, I wanted to see what NEDA community members experienced while job hunting. According to our recent Twitter poll, 41% of our 162 voters said that they had been judged negatively on a job interview because of their physical appearance. Meanwhile, 31% felt that they had been judged positively and 28% said they hadn’t been judged or weren’t sure if they had been judged.
I then asked NEDA’s Instagram community if they felt the same way. The responses I received were simultaneously heartbreaking and angering:
“I once went to hand in my resume at a handbag store and the older lady working behind the counter told me ‘we don’t hire your kind’ just because I had bright pink hair.”
“My friend works in a restaurant across the road from me and said there were jobs available, so of course I went to hand in my CV. I heard nothing back but found out that my friend overheard the person who was doing the interviews saying, ‘I’m not hiring her. She’s too skinny and won’t be able to lift the plates.’”
“One time the lady interviewing me told me that I needed to buy better concealer to cover up my acne better.”
“I went for an interview at a store…by the end of my interview, the interviewer looked at me and said, ‘I can tell you are a large’ and left the room before I could correct her. They then came back and said makeup has to be toned down even though I was just wearing mascara and a thin line of eyeliner. I ended up taking the job, but the boss is so rude to women about their appearances.”
“In my case, I am privileged in that I am 18, conventionally attractive, and fairly outgoing. So when I applied to work at a country club, I was hired on the spot without having to explain my strengths, submit a resume, or do any additional interview questions.”
So what exactly can you, as a manager, associate, or hiring professional, do to combat these types of harmful attitudes? I’m glad you asked!
1. Pinpoint your own prejudices and pledge to do better.
Think tattoos symbolize questionable work ethics? Expect women to conform to feminine beauty ideals? It may be time to explore what you thought of as “common knowledge” and rethink your current attitudes, especially if they position certain groups as inferior. The best way to better understand others is to reach out to people who don’t look or act the way you do, so widen your circle if you can and be open to learning.
2. Be a workplace advocate.
It can be terrifying to confront co-workers about harmful attitudes or comments, but something as simple as not laughing at a fat joke could cause small changes in everyday interactions around the water cooler. When you see or hear something that just feels wrong, you can choose to respond in firm but polite ways. Here are some examples:
“I’d rather not talk about what’s on my plate.”
“I’m not concerned about Emily’s pink hair. She gets all of her work done.”
“It doesn’t matter to me what Susan weighs. Excuse me, I have to get back to work.”
3. Have a respectful conversation with HR.
At the end of the day, your company’s HR department may be more open to change than some give them credit for. I’ve found that more often than not, HR is willing to budge on things like dress code to keep good employees happy – just don’t expect to be able to wear cargo shorts and flip flops if you work at a bank.
4. Take care of yourself.
Job hunts can by trying, but the day-to-day work grind can be tough to cope with as well. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating well, and engaging in activities that make you feel good about yourself. If you need ideas, check out our master list of self-care techniques. Remember: you’re more likely to help others feel good when you yourself are getting what you need.
Diana Denza is a 2011 Fordham University graduate and NEDA’s senior communications associate. She likes pink hair, tattoos, and body piercings more than the average person.