“Looking Good” at Work: The Motherhood Penalty

It has been often acknowledged that working women pay a tremendous price for motherhood. Lost wages due to maternity leaves or missed promotions. But a recent conversation
with a working mom colleague triggered a question about another penalty on working moms, a loss of beauty, and the financial impact of attractiveness in the workplace?

The conversation was simple and familiar. My colleague was frustrated by feeling that she had lost her physical attractiveness since having kids. She had gained weight and people regularly noted that she looked exhausted.

I have never been a big believer that a woman should leverage her looks to advance in the work place. But research indicates that attractiveness is a contributing factor to workplace success. Attractive people earn about 5 percent more in hourly pay than their average-looking colleagues, who in turn earn 9 percent more per hour than the plainest-looking workers. (NEWSWEEK July 2010). In addition to success within the workplace, there is much written that being good-looking positively impacts the hiring decisions of employers.

Height, weight, clothing, make-up all play a role in contributing to perceived female attractiveness in the workplace. So I asked myself, what happens to a woman’s physical attractiveness after the arrival of a baby? I would love to say that a woman becomes more attractive because of the inner beauty that emerges. But the facts tell us something different.

Let’s start with weight.  A study, published in 2010 in The Journal of Applied Psychology, found that women who are 25 lbs. below average weight take home an additional $15,572 each year when compared to female colleagues of average weight.  This is meaningful for working mothers when we consider the results of research from The American Journal of Preventive Medicine which indicates that the 10-year weight gain for an average 140-lb. woman is 9 pounds more for a woman with a husband and child than for a single, childless woman. Why did the mothers in this study gain weight? They reduced the amount of time spent exercising because of a lack of time.

Ah, time…so let’s talk about time and the impact of limited time on appearance. Exercise requires time. Wardrobe requires time. Make-up requires time. I know that in my own life, the thought of devoting 15 minutes a day to a blow dryer seems like too big a luxury, so my hair is wash and wear. I would bet that my hair does not always look as good as it did before I had kids.

One of the most important “beauty aids” compromised by time is SLEEP. Many working mothers of young babies are managing their life on 3-4 hours of sleep. Not enough to be clear thinking, let alone to look well-rested. A study from March 2011, co-authored by Mehmet Oz, found that working moms with young kids are 2.5 times more likely than working dads to get up at night and care for the kids. And working moms stay up later than their male partners, even if they are the primary wage earner.

Finally…money. Although I could not find clear facts to support the loss in disposable income for the working mother, let’s make the leap that most working mothers are not able to spend the same amount on their appearance as they could before having children or as their childless work colleagues.

So whether you agree that appearance should be important at work, it seems to be a factor that working mothers should manage with some attention. So let’s remember that although we may be consumed by caring for others, we need to make some simple commitments to care for ourselves:

1. Exercise. Make it happen in any way you can! Even 15 minutes of something is better than nothing at all. Create a habit and reward yourself.

2. Sleep. Get it! At least 8 hours 2 nights during the work week and catch up on the weekends.

3. Clothing. Have 3 “go to” outfits for days when you are too tired to pull something together. Dresses are helpful – no matching required!

4. Make-up. Wear some. And this is coming from someone who hates to wear makeup. But for major meetings at work, I ALWAYS take the time to put on mascara and lipstick. Make-up does not make you look more beautiful. But it
does make you look like you have the discipline to care about your appearance.

It’s tough enough to be a working mom, without a penalty on how we look.