Most women—no, all women—have had the experience of receiving unsolicited feedback on their physical appearance. Such commentary comes in many forms, from lewd remarks or demands for a “smile” on the street, to irksome discussions with well-meaning relatives about how much “prettier” one might look with a different hairstyle. Women have long fought against these fleeting indignities, including a recent campaign by a Brooklyn artist who postered her neighborhood with messages condemning street harassment by insisting that men “stop telling women to smile.”
If that sounds like a compliment to you, rather than a demand, watch this:
Snappy posters and even a swift retort to a degrading remark can be empowering on the street, but such responses are rarely a solution for women who face scrutiny about their physical appearance in the professional sphere—and do we. Remember when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wore a scrunchie? I do, and I shouldn’t. As Clinton, herself, put it, “If I want to wear my hair back I’m pulling my hair back. You know at some point it’s just not something that deserves a lot of time and attention.”
But a woman’s appearance continues to get plenty of attention, and often that attention eclipses her professional achievements. Recently, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev referred to American tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams as the “Williams brothers” and described their appearance as “frightening.” Serena Williams described the comments as “very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist.” (Tarpischev was later fined and suspended for a year.) Only a few days later, the actress Renee Zellweger created an online outcry by daring to appear in public with a new look that many say have left her “unrecognizable” from efforts to diminish the signs of aging through plastic surgery. Commentary has extended from the lowest depths of Gawker, to an op-ed collection about aging from the more high-brow New York Times.
Of course, Zellweger and the Williams sisters are public figures, who some might argue have opened themselves up to critique. But the truth is women in the workplace are often expected to conform to gender stereotypes about ladylike appearance and behavior. I’ve written about this before. What’s important to remember is that women are not entirely without protection.
While it is well known that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and similar state and local laws, protects against sexual harassment, employees and employers may not know that gender stereotyping in the workplace can also be unlawful under Title VII. In a 1989 decision, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the Supreme Court agreed that an employer could be held liable for denying a woman promotion to partnership on the basis of sex-stereotyping, including comments that she should “take a course at charm school” and could improve her chances if she would only “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.”
Women who think they have been treated unfairly at work because of comments about their presentation—whether harassing or stereotyping—can seek a lawyer’s assistance. Indeed, women have succeeded in challenging employers’ valuation of female employees on the basis of their appearance or their conformance to gender stereotypes, rather than their performance. This sort of corporate behavior figured importantly in my firm’s trial victory against Novartis, where sexual harassment ran rampant. More recently, we won conditional certification of pay claims in a case against KPMG where lead plaintiff Donna Kassman was routinely subjected to gendered critiques of her “tone” and “unapproachable” demeanor.
These cases, celebrity gossip, and a simple walk down the street, all show that women continue to face different standards than men, including far too much attention paid to their appearance. But women have shown again and again that they are capable of promoting change, whether through stealth art projects or by enforcing their rights under the law.