How Far Can You “Lean In” If You ARE Pretty?

How Far Can You “Lean In” If You ARE Pretty? May 28, 2013

Tracy Thompson wrote a great piece on the The Broad Side today, entitled, “How Far Can You ‘Lean In’ If You’re Not Pretty?” It laments the universal inequity of the role of attractiveness between the genders. Men can soar in their careers being merely average-looking, but in order for women to soar, they must be drop-dead gorgeous. A quick look at some Forbes’ “Top 20 CEOs” lists confirms her suspicion.

We all know this is true. It’s played out (of course) in entertainment to the nth degree. It drives me bonkers. How many TV/movie wives/girlfriends are gorgeous, yet paired with an average-looking/dumpy man? Let me think. ALMOST ALL OF THEM. How many TV/movie husbands/boyfriends are gorgeous, yet paired with an average-looking/dumpy woman? Hmmm. Let me think. Hold on…I’m still thinking…um…could it be… NONE OF THEM? (Seriously. If you can think of even ONE, I will eat kale.)

Something else has been bothering me, though. It involves reports this month of a British woman named Laura Fernee, who claims she is too pretty to have a job. Hilarity around the interwebs ensued, mostly on social media, in the form of “Wah, wah, wah. Poooooor baby.”  She was also ridiculed for what she is doing instead, which is living in her parents’ flat, and enjoying the primping/shopping lifestyle at their expense.

I have trouble with this, not just because I’m envious of her current lifestyle, which I am (Mom and Dad? Hint, hint?) I have trouble with this because everyone’s attitude seems so dismissive of the reasons she stopped working.

Fernee is a scientist. A researcher. She holds a Ph.D. and is an academic. Despite these heavy credentials, it seems she felt hounded by male colleagues for dates and resented by female colleagues for her looks. She’s being ridiculed as a self-centered, conceited, spoiled brat. Perhaps that is exactly what she is.

HOWEVER, and this is a big however, is that reason to pay no attention to the treatment she alleges to have received? I understand office (or laboratory) romances are commonplace, and oft-pursued. Yet, has anyone denied that she was pursued by multiple male colleagues on a regular basis? Has anyone contradicted the implication that regardless of how she dressed (scrubs or suit, make-up free or not) she was regularly left romantic gifts and love notes that made her uncomfortable? Can anyone – especially based on the nastiness of the reaction she’s received since her pronouncement – say with a straight face no female colleague might resent and/or bully her for the unsolicited romantic attention she received?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I completely get that announcing to the world you’ve left your £30K/year research position to live a £75K/year lifestyle at your parents’ expense leaves one open to massive ridicule. Maybe even deserved, when you’re claiming the reason is that one is “too attractive” for employment. The possibility that she’s a leech with an ego problem doesn’t for me, though, wipe out the likelihood that her male colleagues acted unprofessionally and created an environment in which it was difficult for her to face work every day. It doesn’t preclude the reality that attractive women are often resented by their female colleagues. Professional women, it seems, can be as stuck in Junior High School mode as easily as professional men can. Of that I have no doubt.

Of course, I wish she had stuck it out, stood up to the aggressive men and resentful women and had the benefit of a supportive HR team behind her. However, I’m unfamiliar with the professional culture of scientific research laboratories, and know little about her psyche, so I’m loathe to pass judgment.

I also wish this case could be a lesson on how the academic elite – and people in all fields, really – should behave in a professional setting, rather than an opportunity to mock and smear. It’s a bad idea to openly (or secretly) romance a colleague. If a woman is sending a clear message that she wants and expects to be treated professionally, RECEIVE that message. Take it as a directive to follow, not as a challenge to overcome.

I imagine that someone who studies science to the doctorate level and pursues a career in research has got to have more depth and better intentions than Fermee is being shown to have. She is someone who “leaned in” and is attractive, like Thompson asserts is often necessary. If what truly prompted her exodus is the way people reacted to her looks, rather than her research, instead of feeling hostility and derision towards her, I just feel sad.

For as much as we scream and clamor that we need female scientists, another one bites the dust. For as much as we urge our girls to be powerful intellectually, while embracing their natural beauty, our culture screams at them how sexy they should be, how slutty they shouldn’t be, how attractive they should be, how threatening to other women they shouldn’t be. Speak up! Be quiet! Lean In! Lie back! It’s enough to make me want to tell my daughter, “F&*%  it. Just be yourself.” Which might not be bad advice. It might even be the advice Laura Fermee’s parents gave to her.

This piece originally published on The Broad Side on Tuesday, May 28, 2013.

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