Blonde or brunette? A new study shows that hair color can make all the difference for how men judge female leaders at work.
Gender at Work

Study: Men see brunette women as better leaders than blondes

Men already judge women leaders for being too aggressively ambitious and too nepotistic in their goals. And according to new research, we now know that for men, hair color can make all the difference for how they judge female leaders.

Brunettes are perceived as more competent

In three studies, University of British Columbia researchers Dr. Jennifer Berdahl and Dr. Natalya Alonso surveyed some 100 men to see how they felt about women CEOs who were blonde and brunette. Although men rated blondes and brunettes the same in attractiveness, in the important quality of leadership, brunettes were seen as superior.

When men were shown the same woman with different-colored hair, they thought that the blonde version of the woman was less competent and independent.

The irony: Women who are blonde are overrepresented in corporate leadership compared to women with dark hair — and even men with light hair. Although only about 2% of male Fortune 500 CEOs are blonde, 48% of female CEOs at S&P 500 companies and 35% of U.S. female senators were blonde, the researchers found.

The majority of men thought that brunettes would make a better CEO or senator than the blondes. The fact that participants were being shown the same person, just with different-colored hair, shows how subjective these criticisms can be.

The blonde Glinda-the-Good-Witch effect

But that doesn’t mean brunettes weren’t getting negatively judged, too. When men were asked to look at the same women leaders and judge them based on their dominant leadership styles, they universally penalized brunettes for actually leading teams. In that situation, blondes came out ahead.

When men heard the firm, decisive words of “my staff knows who the boss is” from a brunette, men rated her as less attractive and warm. But when a blonde was shown to say the same thing, she was perceived as warm and attractive in what Berdahl called the “Glinda-the-Good-Witch effect.”

“Our data suggest that 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 wrote. “Barbie can be CEO as long as she is young and/or docile.”

In other words, the blonde advantage is that you can get away with more aggression than your brunette counterparts because men in power will incorrectly see them as more docile, gentle, and less independent-minded.

It shows the double bind that many women face from both men and women, however: You can be either seen as competent or likable, but you only get to be one.

But you shouldn’t take this research as reason to bring out the hair dye. Sociologist Kjerstin Gruys critiqued one journalist’s analysis that this research means “woman who want to be leaders should dye their hair blonde” as short-sighted.

Gruys responded that dyeing hair blonde doesn’t take into account the hair of women of color — and that changing one’s haircolor doesn’t do much to change how women, as a whole, are paid or promoted or treated at work.

Whether you’re blonde or brunette, this research shows that for women, you will be judged on your looks.