You’re in the office when a senior colleague asks you to print off and organise some documents — a task usually reserved for the intern. You briefly wonder if they’re just being rude, before realising their mistake. Even though you’re a manager, they think you’re the intern.
Looking young can be a blessing and a curse. Of course, being mistaken for someone younger can be flattering. We spend millions of pounds in the pursuit of youthfulness every year, with the global market for anti-ageing products projected to reach $83.2bn (£58.8bn) by 2027.
In the workplace, however, looking young can easily become a problem. Having a ‘young’ face can lead people to question your competence, your authority and your status, even if you’re highly qualified and experienced. And looking young can also affect whether you get a job in the first place, too.
“There can be a tendency for others in the workplace to view the younger looking woman as less capable,” says Jo Clark, a career coach at Work It Sister.
“They may be offered less opportunities for growth and in some cases, overlooked completely. The other side to this is the knocked confidence levels of young-looking women as others appear to breeze through their careers, while they are sidelined. This can be difficult to overcome.”
Clark suggests the problem is that younger women are often associated as being junior. “Therefore, they are deemed potentially less capable of taking on more responsible tasks,” she says.
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Your face plays a surprising role in the assumptions other people make about you and your behaviour, research suggests. Having a so-called “babyface” — a rounder, youthful face — can make people think you are more trustworthy and innocent, perhaps because we associate the look with innocent infants.
However, people who look younger than they actually are tend to have lower-status jobs that lack authority, thanks to this stereotype.
And women, more so than men, may be at higher risk of falling prey to the downsides of the babyface stereotype. Multiple studies have shown how women are more likely than men to be judged on their appearance at work. In 2016, researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Irvine, found women who put more effort into their appearance often make more money.
Cheney Hamilton, CEO & Founder of the FindYourFlex network and a member of the 50:50 Parliamentary Group, says young-looking women aren’t always taken seriously when sharing their opinions or experiences.
“This happened to me recently, weirdly with another woman who didn’t realise that I was 40 and had actually ‘been around the block’ and had something relevant and insightful to say,” she says.
And the problem ties in with long-standing inequalities women often face in the workplace. Often, whether a woman is considered for a job can depend on their age.
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Although it is illegal to ask women whether they have children or plan to have them during recruitment, a recent survey of more than 800 UK HR managers found one in 10 said they would be reluctant to hire a woman they thought may go on to start a family. Not only does this have a devastating impact on women’s careers and finances, but it also continues to lock talented women out of key roles in workplaces.
“From experience, I’ve seen women not be hired if they don’t yet have children – or look of an age where they wish to bare children, as the employer in question didn’t want to ‘lose a head’ and cover the cost,” says Hamilton.
So what should you do if you think you are being treated unfairly or discriminated against because of the way you look?
“First of all know that It’s not you, it’s them,” Clark says. “Understand that you are 100% capable and their perception of you is at fault. I would always suggest tackling this head on by having an open and honest discussion with your manager in a non-confrontational way.”
She recommends organising a meeting and sharing your concerns about the level of responsibility you are getting. “Give instances of times you feel you have been overlooked for work opportunities,” says Clark.
“Ask them if there are specific reasons why this may have happened. Let them know that you may look young but are keen and capable and can they offer you more responsibility or opportunities when they arise.”