The neuroscience of makeup

Posted on: November 24, 2013

Neuroscience is the new black and its insights are being applied to many aspects of leadership.  Even so, I thought I’d seen it all when I came across an article in The Sunday Times recently on “the neuroscience of make up”.  What could neuroscience have to say about this apparently trivial topic?  Quite a lot as it happens.  Experiments conducted by Harvard and Procter & Gamble demonstrate that women who wear makeup were rated more competent, likeable, attractive and trustworthy than women who were not.  The key is to apply your makeup well and not to overdo it.

When I was a young lawyer starting out on my career I went to see an image consultant who advised me what colours, makeup and clothing styles to wear.  I followed her guidance to the letter and I noticed colleagues started to comment that there was something different about me (in a good way), without being able to put their finger on what it was.  My increased confidence in my appearance meant I felt more assured and in turn colleagues and clients had more confidence in me.

When I moved into executive coaching often the first thing I did with clients, both female and male, was to send them to the same image consultant.  Once again, colleagues would sense a positive difference in that person without being able to put their finger on it, and this would reinforce the positive behavioural changes the client was seeking to make, and support their bid for promotion.

I realised that it is not enough just to change the way you are behaving at work, you also have to signal to others that you have changed, and our appearance one very powerful way of achieving this.

Women have a distinct advantage in this area because we can wear makeup and a much broader range of colours and clothes styles than men – so use it to your advantage! Resist the temptation to lapse into the standard navy/black/grey suit uniform and blend in with the crowd.  Likewise, resist the younger woman trap of emulating the “Business Barbie” look beloved by recent Apprentice finalists –  tottering around on 4 inch stiletto heels, frequently combined with short skirts and long flowing hair (more on this in future posts).

The fine line to tread it to embrace your femininity and express your personality through what you wear, while avoiding an overly sexualised look.   My heroine in the music world is singer Adele who embraces her body shape and colouring, with a look that is womanly, stylish and self-possessed.

I once heard a statistic that women who wear makeup earn 12% more than women who do not. I don’t know if its true but it persuaded an accountant client of mine to start wearing makeup.[1]

So, put an effort into what you wear at work.  This is the low-hanging fruit of making a positive impression. Make sure you stand out and get noticed for the right reasons.

[1] Caution: 64% of all statistics are made up on the spot