Ladies, you'll never guess what senior-level men notice about women's appearance. It's not the latest fashion trend that unnerves them—like sexy leather suits or sky-high heels. No, what men really notice (and abhor) are the gray roots sticking out of women's hair. The horror!
Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett mentioned that finding at a Flex-Time Lawyers luncheon at Clifford Chance a few weeks ago, and you could hear the gasp among the women in the audience.
"Senior [executive] men have strong opinions on this issue," Hewlett tells me about her forthcoming study about the attitudes of men and women ages 25 to 55. "You think certain things aren't noticed, but women are held to a higher standard in grooming."
If women's gray roots signal sloppy grooming, why don't women just stop coloring their hair all together? Wouldn't that be so much more liberating?
Not so fast, says a recent Associated Press article. Though gray hair is now in vogue (think Christine Lagarde, the chic chief of the International Monetary Fund chief and former Baker & McKenzie head), women are not quite ready to show their true colors in the workplace. Reports the AP:
For regular working women, it's a trickier issue.
"I don't think a woman in the workplace is going to follow that trend," David Scher, a civil rights attorney in Washington, said with a laugh. "I think women in the workplace are highly pressured to look young. If I were an older working person, the last thing I would do is go gray."
Indeed, more women are coloring their hair than ever. In 1950, only 7 percent of women colored their hair, while now, "it's closer to 95 percent or more, depending on geographic location," says the AP. The advent of home hair color kits in the 1960s changed "the follicle landscape for good." (To quote Nora Ephron: "There's a reason why 40, 50, and 60 don't look the way they used to, and it's not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It's because of hair dye.")
But there's also a gray movement afoot. One 44-year-old manager who stopped coloring her hair told the AP: "It's a bold statement to be gray because it's saying, 'You know what? I did let my hair go, but I'm not letting myself go.' . . . People take me more seriously now."
Whether it's a good career strategy to go gray depends a lot on the job and the location, says the AP. "The [gray] color might be easier in academia over high-tech, for instance, and in Minneapolis over Los Angeles."
And what about being a gray lady in the legal profession?
"I don’t dye my hair, and I don’t think it’s always necessary," says a 50-ish female partner at an Am Law 100 firm in New York. "I call my gray 'sparkly silver highlights.' "
But another lawyer who's now in-house at an entertainment company in Los Angeles strongly disagrees. She says going gray is "basically a bad career move—especially now, when the job market is so tight and favors the young. Women with gray hair, no matter how well dressed or groomed they are, tend to look much older than their age."
So what's the verdict about going natural in the office? Are there advantages for women to go gray—like gaining gravitas? Or will it just make women look like corporate grannies?
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