It was a typical Sunday night for Caroline*, a non-profit communications director who had been working from home for a few weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19. While Caroline was trying to establish a strict work-life balance — despite rarely leaving her apartment — she still found herself mindlessly checking her emails ahead of the week. That's when she noticed a message pop up from her executive director.
In the email, which was addressed to the entire company, her boss provided tips and resources for "looking good on video calls" — from lighting and backgrounds to personal hygiene. While his advice to invest in an advanced webcam setup infuriated Caroline (because of income disparities within her company), she was most bewildered by his suggestion to wear makeup. "While it'd be bad advice at any time for playing into sexism, it just felt incredibly tone-deaf during this particular time," she tells Refinery29. "It was demoralising. It's not appropriate to be talking to women about their appearance and much less so during a crisis."
Caroline isn't alone. On social media, you'll find many women sharing their frustrations of being told they look tired or less engaged, and some have even reported managers who flat-out ordered them to wear makeup for video calls. "I've had more than one Zoom meeting where my boss has asked if I'm tired. This is just my face without makeup," wrote one Twitter user. "First day we had a meeting, my boss said, 'You guys didn’t put on any makeup!” I had on makeup. I now sit in front of a window to look less like death," wrote another.
While this discourse would be inappropriate at any time, it's especially harmful during periods of high anxiety. "Criticism over our appearance when we're juggling so much can affect morale in any team member, but women are at the receiving end of this type of criticism in a disproportionate way — pandemic or no pandemic," says Dr Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. "Focusing on appearance beyond professional attire can create a toxic environment that will stunt the growth of team members and add an obstacle to what they can contribute to a company."
"Criticising looks or lighting can take up unnecessary mental space and corrode the confidence of employees who are already balancing a lot."
Dr Sanam Hafeez
Add that to the long list of other stressors right now — like parents having to homeschool their children for the first time or young adults struggling with loneliness or insomnia — and makeup is the last thing on many people's minds. "There might be some people who have a little more bandwidth to consider how they look on camera, but some people just don't, and it's an accomplishment for them to have even worked that day," Caroline says. "There were some meetings where I didn't even turn on my web camera because I'd been crying, and I didn't want people to see my red, puffy face."
While there are certainly those who find that putting on makeup can provide a sense of grounding during difficult times, that's not the case for everyone. "Companies should be mindful of the sort of language that criticises employees for looking tired or for the lack of makeup," says Dr Hafeez. "Criticising looks or lighting can take up unnecessary mental space and corrode the confidence of employees who are already balancing a lot."
Dr Hafeez also spotlights the double standard this expectation holds for women, and how it can impact them long after the pandemic. "The focus on looks, particularly in women in professional settings, can wear down self-confidence and even peer perception of their leadership and results, which can affect their career path, their confidence to apply for higher roles, and their fulfilment within a company," she says.
"It's not a coincidence that Zoom has a touch-up appearance feature."
Professor Brooke Erin Duffy
It's a workplace issue that has existed long before Zoom. "The reality is that women, compared to men, receive much more scrutinisation and critical feedback on their appearances," says Brooke Erin Duffy, associate professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University. "Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, we have seen the implications of these uneven standards across various professional sectors — from politics to business, education to creative industries." She has also personally witnessed its impact on academic professionals lately, referencing a recent article that urged instructors to wash their hair before virtual lectures.
Citing Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, Professor Duffy says that women are still expected to fit a certain beauty standard in the workplace — and that expectation has only been amplified in the current crisis. "The move to virtual work seems to have done little to dismantle this," Professor Duffy says. "Rather, the structure that remote work is taking amid the COVID-19 pandemic is one that has pushed many of us to the Zoom call; as one of my students pointed out, it's not a coincidence that Zoom has a touch-up appearance feature."
Ultimately, there are much more significant issues impacting women in the virtual workplace than how they look on camera — and companies would be wise to recognise that. "We're collectively experiencing a form of upheaval that is bringing into stark relief what many of us have long known — namely that the demands of domestic labor and care work fall disproportionally on women," says Professor Duffy. "This realisation should lessen rather than exacerbate the requirements for forms of aesthetic labor."
*Names have been changed for privacy.