To be taken seriously at work by people in positions of power, women sometimes feel like they have to go to extreme lengths to conceal and modify their appearance — all to level the playing field in male-dominated industries. On Monday, Eileen Carey, the Silicon Valley CEO of Glassbreakers, shared one such story, telling the BBC that she dyes her blonde hair brunette and wears glasses, having received negative feedback about her looks.
“I was told for this raise [of funds], that it would be to my benefit to dye my hair brown because there was a stronger pattern recognition of brunette women CEOs,” she told the BBC, citing how business colleagues would compare her to Elizabeth Holmes, a blonde CEO whose failed blood-testing company is hemorrhaging millions to settle lawsuits. Carey noted that the first time she received this advice was from a woman in venture capital.
Blondes considered less competent at work in survey
Research actually finds that there’s a stronger pattern recognition with blonde, not brunette women, in corporate leadership positions. Almost half of female CEOs at S&P 500 companies are blonde, according to a hair-color stereotyping study. But perhaps the business contacts giving this advice to Carey are alluding to a stereotype of blondes being more likable and less competent than brunettes — that’s a leadership myth that continues to persist in the minds of some men. In a study where men were shown the same women with different-colored hair, men said that the blonde versions of the same women were less competent and independent, yet the blonde versions were perceived to be more warm and attractive.
Dr. Jennifer Berdahl, one of the researchers in this study, called this bias the “Glinda-the-Good-Witch effect,” where “Barbie can be CEO as long as she is young and/or docile” because “blonde women are not only assumed to be younger than their darker haired counterparts, but are also judged to be less independent-minded and less willing take a stand than other women and than men.”
Berdahl’s analysis aligns with Carey’s personal experience. “Being a brunette helps me to look a bit older and I needed that, I felt, in order to be taken seriously,” Carey said, citing examples of being more likely to be flirted with at work when she had blonde hair. “For me to be successful in this [tech industry] space, I’d like to draw as little attention as possible, especially in any sort of sexual way,” she said.
Female tech CEOs face subjective criticism like this all the time
The margin for error in any venture-capital-backed startup is razor-thin. But female entrepreneurs leading startups face additional hurdles from investors who question their ability and judgment and are less likely to look like them. In the U.S., women only make up an estimated 7% of all venture capitalists in charge of deciding if your startup will get the funds it needs to survive another day. A 2017 field study of venture capitalist interactions between male and female entrepreneurs found that female entrepreneurs were more likely to get asked how they would not lose while male entrepreneurs were asked how they would win. That difference in the framing of ideas led to female entrepreneurs getting less funding from investors.
A recent experiment proved that identifying as a man can make all the difference in startup success. In a recent Fast Company article, Witchsy co-founders Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer said they noticed that clients were using a condescending tone of “Okay, girls . . .” and weren’t responding to emails in a timely manner. So they decided to see if adding a fictional male co-founder would make a difference. It did. Once Gazin and Dwyer introduced clients to a fictional male co-founder named “Keith Mann,” client interactions became much more productive.
“It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else or if there was anything else that Keith needed help with,” Dwyer said.
Carey and the Witchsy co-founders took actions to take back control of factors outside of their control, and succeeded. But having to regulate one’s appearance for the sake of judgmental investors shows how limiting and insular the ideal startup leader is perceived to be.