People@Work

Time to shatter ‘the glasses’ ceiling ?

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on November 20, 2019 Published on November 20, 2019

Can the revolt by women in Japan lead to a global rethink on hiring policies that focus too much on spectacles and appearances?

Forget the glass ceiling — the invisible barrier that prevents women from moving up the corporate ladder. How do you combat the glasses ceiling that prevents women wearing spectacles from being hired? Early this month, women professionals in Japan took to social media to protest against the anti-glasses policies at many workplaces.

Several retail outlets in Japan apparently don’t hire saleswomen in frames as “they give a cold impression”, while airlines and hospitality employers feel that wearing glasses can create safety concerns. In addition, there are diktats like wear make-up to work.

Are such biases and mandates prevalent in India?

Says Shailja Dutt, Founder and Chairperson of Stellar Search: “Practically speaking, there are some biases prevalent in India, especially in the hospitality sectors, including aviation and hotels.” These are on account of gender, age and are based on the requirement to be well-presented.

Dutt says the thinking in the industry is that wearing glasses while serving meals in a restaurant has an imminent risk of having them fall down, and god forbid it be on the meal of the guest. “Similarly, during an emergency, in case a flight lands on water, will a flight attendant with glasses be as comfortable saving passengers versus the one in contact lenses?” she asks.

Sangeeta Bahugana, a hospitality industry consultant, remembers the time 30 years ago in her first job when her general manager looked at her hands and asked her to wear nail polish.

“He quizzed me about how much work I do at home and told me to take care of my hands,” she recalls.

Today, Bahugana, who helps recruit professionals for the industry in senior positions, argues that these practices should not be looked down in a negative light. “If you are in the front line interacting with customers, then you have to be well-groomed and presentable. There is nothing wrong in this policy,” she says. As for wearing glasses, there is no such hard and fast rule. It’s only the safety factor that mandates such hiring by some managers and it’s equally applicable to both men and women, she says.

But Dutt of Stellar says, globally, we are seeing a decline in such mandates for employees in these sectors, where companies have come forward and discouraged these requirements. In March 2019, she points out, Virgin Atlantic lifted its mandate that female flight attendants wear skirts and make-up on duty, and a protest by Air India cabin crew members recently forced the airline to revoke its strict body mass index standards that disenfranchised many employees.

Listing out many such actions, she says, “Even the Korean low-cost carrier Jeju Air recently revised the rules for its cabin crew so that cabin members are allowed to wear glasses and are required to carry an additional pair or contact lenses, in case the glasses get broken.”

Says Dutt: Often companies in the health/beauty space do place emphasis on how persons who are to be the face of the organisation present themselves.

Whilst they look for overall leadership and gravitas they also consider the appearance of a candidate.

Appearance, in fact, is a two-way cross that working women have to bear. While in some industries, you are required to look good to be hired, in other industries if you are too good-looking, you are not taken seriously and dismissed as dumb.

A double bind

Apurva Purohit, President, Jagran Prakashan and author of Lady You’re Not a Man, and the more recent Lady You’re The Boss, says that for years women downplayed their looks, even going so far as to dress dowdily, in order to be taken seriously. “In a way, it is a judgement on society that we needed to do that,” says Purohit, who feels women suffer the double bind of being bitch or bimbette. “If you are tough, then you are a bitch. If you are good looking, you are a bimbette.” These are stereotypes that are constantly perpetuated at the workplace.

Purohit says there are four stereotypes that women are boxed into all the time — The Mother, the Pet, the Iron Lady and the Seductress. “ I have seen it all the time. A good looking woman, if she does well , you hear — oh , she would have reached the top because of the way she looks.”

“We have to fight it,” urges Purohit. “One is the subconscious bias that society treats us to. The second is our own internal role-playing that we do. Often enough women themselves fall into the trap of behaving like the pet or the mother figure. And we have to be conscious and say, let me not walk into the stereotype.

So ladies, go out there and wear your true personas, look the way you feel comfortable in and break the stereotype.

Starting this fortnight, we devote a section to issues that women professionals face at the workplace. Do share your thoughts, experiences and ideas to womenatworkbl@gmail.com

Published on November 20, 2019
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