Conforming as a Means to Economic Security

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

Employment discrimination perpetuates oppressive norms, encouraging those marginalised to emulate patriarchal ideals to earn a living. For reference, the patriarchy in this post is defined by the social system serving the interests of those with intersecting or individual privileged social statuses in the West.[1] For example, men, Caucasians, cis people or those identifying as all three.

In the present day, behaviours which conform to social standards are often confused with an individual’s personal choice. Women are not physically forced to wear make-up or undergo cosmetic enhancements to be perceived as beautiful. Instead, such beauty ideals are often understood as a social expectation placed on women – reducing them to objects serving the purpose of aesthetics for the enjoyment of men.

But are women autonomously deciding to invest their time and money in beauty products in a “postfeminist” society? [2] With some make-up brands even being celebrated for diversity and inclusivity, such as Fenty Beauty who specialise in a wide range of tones suitable to all. Engaging in beauty practices is considered to be the norm, but a norm absent of marginalizing social coercion. Bordo notes that many female consumers do not believe it is social pressure causing women to engage in beauty practices. [3]

Moreover, it is easy to disregard this behaviour as playful self-expression - personal choices absent of social influence. Especially as some are encouraged by the diversity demands of modern-day feminists. In fact, Tracey Owens Patton notes that many black women felt straightening their hair was not about emulating whiteness - the dominant social norm - but about keeping up to date with modern hairstyles. [4]

However, when referring to data concerning female employability and job suitability, white women and people of colour (POC) who fail to march-in-step with dominant patriarchal ideals suffer economically. This includes wearing adequate make-up, mirroring Eurocentric hair texture or minimalizing culturally ‘other’ features. Rosa Silverman reported that “more than two thirds of employers admit they would be less likely to employ a female job applicant if she did not wear makeup to the job interview”. [5] Additionally, Rozina Sini reported that a West African woman in the UK was told “wear a weave to work – your [natural] hair is unprofessional”. [6]

Often the demands of economic stability cause women and minorities to undergo damaging alterations so they may be perceived as professional and presentable, and therefore employable. An example of these pressures to conform is the straightening of Afrocentric hair. Harry Yorke reported that “a black woman applying for work at Harrods was told she would not get the role unless she chemically straightened her hair”. [7] Being subject to this type of economic pressure can result in people engaging in drastic and sometimes permanent procedures.

This is not to say that many conforming to appearance ideals are not choosing to do so as a form of self-expression. But it does raise the question as to why it is the case that in order to achieve economic security, women and minorities must adhere to societal standards of beauty. This is clearly rooted in employment discrimination and bias concerning beauty norms and professional appearance. Cultural assimilation is enforced as a result of biased employment conduct, thus by upholding the patriarchal ideal people are very much conforming as a means of economic survival.

Efforts to alleviate these pressures must focus on diversifying recruitment standards and tackling biases concerning professionalism. Offering women and minorities funded training for recruitment positions within companies, and providing equality and diversity training to recruitment staff are a few suggestions. In this way, professionalism and employability ideals may not be so prejudicial, but more diverse.

We're grateful to Lauren Blackwood for this guest post. Lauren Blackwood is an MRes student at the University of Birmingham, UK. Pronouns: she/her. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

[1] Crenshaw, K. 1991. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Colour. Stanford Law Review 43(6) (1991), pp. 4-5; Kirk, G. & Margo Okazawa-Rey, E. 2012. Women’s Lives: A multicultural perspective, 6th ed. (New York, USA: McGraw Hill), pp. G-3

[2] Stuart, A. & Donaghue, N. 2011. Choosing to Conform: The discursive complexities of choice in relation to feminine beauty practices, Feminism and Psychology, 22(1), pp 98-121, abstract

[3] Bordo, S. 2003. Material Girl. Unbearable Weight: feminism, western culture, and the body (London, UK: University of California Press), p.251

[4] Patton, T.O. 2006. Hey Girl, Am I More Than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body image, and Hair. NWSA journal18(2), p. 29

[5] Silverman, R. 2013. Bosses admit they would discriminate against women not wearing make-up. The Telegraph (UK)

[6] Sini, R. 2016. Wear A Weave To Work – Your Afro Is Unprofessional. BBC News Online

[7] Yorke, H. 2017. Black Woman Told To Straighten Hair If She Wants Harrods Job, MPs Told. The Telegraph (UK)


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