How Far Can You “Lean In” if You ARE Pretty?

Katie Couri Sheryl SandbergTracy Thompson wrote a great piece on the The Broad Side today, entitled, “How Far Can You ‘Lean In’ If You’re Not Pretty?” It laments the universal inequity of the role of attractiveness between the genders. Men can soar in their careers being merely average-looking, but in order for women to soar, they must be drop-dead gorgeous. A quick look at some Forbes’ “Top 20 CEOs” lists confirms her suspicion.

We all know this is true. It’s played out (of course) in entertainment to the nth degree. It drives me bonkers. How many TV/movie wives/girlfriends are gorgeous, yet paired with an average-looking/dumpy man? Let me think. ALMOST ALL OF THEM. How many TV/movie husbands/boyfriends are gorgeous, yet paired with an average-looking/dumpy woman? Hmmm. Let me think. Hold on…I’m still thinking…um…could it be… NONE OF THEM? (Seriously. If you can think of even ONE, I will eat kale.)

Something else has been bothering me, though. It involves reports this month of a British woman named Laura Fernee, who claims she is too pretty to have a job. Hilarity around the interwebs ensued, mostly on social media, in the form of “Wah, wah, wah. Poooooor baby.”  She was also ridiculed for what she is doing instead, which is living in her parents’ flat, and enjoying the primping/shopping lifestyle at their expense.

I have trouble with this, not just because I’m envious of her current lifestyle, which I am (Mom and Dad? Hint, hint?) I have trouble with this because everyone’s attitude seems so dismissive of the reasons she stopped working.

Fernee is a scientist. A researcher. She holds a Ph.D. and is an academic. Despite these heavy credentials, it seems she felt hounded by male colleagues for dates and resented by female colleagues for her looks. She’s being ridiculed as a self-centered, conceited, spoiled brat. Perhaps that is exactly what she is.

HOWEVER, and this is a big however, is that reason to pay no attention to the treatment she alleges to have received? I understand office (or laboratory) romances are commonplace, and oft-pursued. Yet, has anyone denied that she was pursued by multiple male colleagues on a regular basis? Has anyone contradicted the implication that regardless of how she dressed (scrubs or suit, make-up free or not) she was regularly left romantic gifts and love notes that made her uncomfortable? Can anyone – especially based on the nastiness of the reaction she’s received since her pronouncement – say with a straight face no female colleague might resent and/or bully her for the unsolicited romantic attention she received?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I completely get that announcing to the world you’ve left your £30K/year research position to live a £75K/year lifestyle at your parents’ expense leaves one open to massive ridicule. Maybe even deserved, when you’re claiming the reason is that one is “too attractive” for employment. The possibility that she’s a leech with an ego problem doesn’t for me, though, wipe out the likelihood that her male colleagues acted unprofessionally and created an environment in which it was difficult for her to face work every day. It doesn’t preclude the reality that attractive women are often resented by their female colleagues. Professional women, it seems, can be as stuck in Junior High School mode as easily as professional men can. Of that I have no doubt.

Of course, I wish she had stuck it out, stood up to the aggressive men and resentful women and had the benefit of a supportive HR team behind her. However, I’m unfamiliar with the professional culture of scientific research laboratories, and know little about her psyche, so I’m loathe to pass judgment.

I also wish this case could be a lesson on how the academic elite – and people in all fields, really – should behave in a professional setting, rather than an opportunity to mock and smear. It’s a bad idea to openly (or secretly) romance a colleague. If a woman is sending a clear message that she wants and expects to be treated professionally, RECEIVE that message. Take it as a directive to follow, not as a challenge to overcome.

I imagine that someone who studies science to the doctorate level and pursues a career in research has got to have more depth and better intentions than Fermee is being shown to have. She is someone who “leaned in” and is attractive, like Thompson asserts is often necessary. If what truly prompted her exodus is the way people reacted to her looks, rather than her research, instead of feeling hostility and derision towards her, I just feel sad.

For as much as we scream and clamor that we need female scientists, another one bites the dust. For as much as we urge our girls to be powerful intellectually, while embracing their natural beauty, our culture screams at them how sexy they should be, how slutty they shouldn’t be, how attractive they should be, how threatening to other women they shouldn’t be. Speak up! Be quiet! Lean In! Lie back! It’s enough to make me want to tell my daughter, “F&*%  it. Just be yourself.” Which might not be bad advice. It might even be the advice Laura Fermee’s parents gave to her.

Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore, MD. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Catonsville Patch, Kveller, and has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” Her writing has also landed in the “Winner’s Circle” on Midlife Collage twice. Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.

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How far can you “Lean In” if your aren’t pretty? Guest contributor Tracy Thompson has a few things to say on that!

  • Amy McVay Abbott

    I am fascinated by this and the inverse of it, am I too ugly to have a job or progress in my job? Great piece.

  • Bravo. Speak up, Shut up. There’s no right way for us to win, so best to just do and be ourselves.

  • Sandra Miller

    There are examples of women with ordinary looks who succeed. Madeleine Allbright. Terry Gross. Bella Abzug. Phyllis Schlafly.

    Men are free from all the adjuring of how to be because men don’t ten do give each other unsolicited advice and criticism in the same way women do. Women’s glossy magazines are paeans to female insecurity. Men’s glossy magazines address men’s interests which include but certainly don’t stop at, or mostly consist of, grooming and angst.

    I find this article pretty weak – 60% of the space is dedicated to mocking and then reconsidering the mocking of a buffoon. She’s a total outlier and we’re taking her so SERIOUSLY in this article, as if she’s indicative of some trend or major issue. She’s not.

    My personal take is that being attractive has more negatives than positives in the workplace, if you’re a woman. Most of the very attractive women I know agree. I had a boss at a Fortune 50 company who told me, “I can’t promote you because people will think I’m giving you preferential treatment because you’re an attractive female. But it’s OK. Your husband makes good money.”

    I just can’t imagine men having this conversation.

  • Sandra Miller

    I should add that I quit that job, and many other jobs were out there for me, that paid more, afforded more status, and less bullshit. To me, that is what Ms. Sandberg means by “lean in”. Seize opportunities, stop waiting for some Meritocracy Police to show up and promote you to what you’re worth.

  • It is clear that Fernee, despite her education, is a shallow, boring person.There are lots of shallow, boring people in academia, just like in any profession. But any woman who claims she is too pretty to keep a job isn’t even worth listening to. Men hit on women who are far less pretty than Fernee. I should know; I was one of them. I never thought about quitting a job because of it. I DID finally wise up to what was and wasn’t sexual harassment, which is really a whole other thing. I am sorry but worrying about being too pretty to work as a scientist strikes me as a whole lot of nothing to worry about and not what we feminists need to be talking about.

    • Jen

      I’d be curious to know what you mean, Lisa (previous commenter) about how you wised up to what was and wasn’t sexual harassment. Does that mean you have a broader view of sexual harassment now or a more narrow one? I ask because I think (and I posted something similar on the ARE NOT pretty post that inspired this one) that attractive women and unattractive women both have challenges in the workplace thanks to their looks and/or perceived sexiness/confidence. I do not think men –unattractive or unattractive — need to deal with these issues in the workplace at all. I see and hear men all the time act “flirty” as a way of being playful with colleagues, superiors, or reports and I can’t imagine for a second that the female recipients are thinking “Wow, he wants to sleep with me.” On the other hand, put a female in that situation — who uses flirty to her advantage because she wants to be seen as confident and playful in her workplace — and you’re on your way to sexual harassment. Meaning: the male recipient will perceive her playfulness as a come on or invitation or sluttiness or inappropriate.

      That’s just one additional imbalance I don’t think has been referenced in this larger conversation. And it goes hand in hand with the idea that women have to watch how they dress both on the street and in the workplace to make sure they are not perceived as cheap, slutty, or stupid — a lot more so than men, in what I have witnessed.

  • I wish I could feel sympathy for Laura Fernee. In fact, had she framed her story differently, I might have felt some. Her beauty was clearly not too much of a distraction in graduate school, and she was probably surrounded by many male students and professors. Instead of bucking the stereotype at her research job and hanging in there, she chose to become the stereotype…and to parade it all over the media. I’d like to give Fernee the advice that I give my kids at the playground–“If someone isn’t treating you nicely, ignore them. If they continue, find another place to play.”

  • In my experience attractive women learn how to “work it” with people in the workplace; but don’t get or feel alienated unless it’s a very male-centric culture (like construction). I always cringe when I hear women say I’m too pretty for them to be friends with me; work with me; people are jealous of me, blah blah. They are usually doing it for their ten minutes of fame. People like being around attractive (or beautiful people) in and out of the workplace.

  • Nick

    Thanks for the great article. I thought of a couple of pairings from The Wire that could be considered attractive male/average woman. McNulty and Beadie and Lt. Daniels with both of his partners Marla Daniels and Rhonda Pearlman.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Darn it. Now I have to eat kale.

  • Aliza,

    This is really important and I’m glad you wrote it. I’m just amazed at how people continue to think our looks don’t matter. Maybe they shouldn’t, but they do. I’ve linked your piece in a comment on my most recent post contrasting Jewish and Christian views of modestly.

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