An open letter to Procter & Gamble
Dear Procter & Gamble,
I am a professional woman and I buy a lot of cosmetics. I wear makeup almost everyday. From time-to-time, I even write about cosmetics on my blog. Your recent study on makeup and the perceived competence of women stinks. And for that reason, I will no longer buy your products.
You probably fund a lot of studies, so let me be more specific. I am referring to the study in which you paid Harvard Medical School, among others, to study whether makeup alters people’s perception of the qualitative worth of women.
As you stated in your press release this was “the first-ever study” on this topic. The study started off okay (well, except that you are in the business of selling cosmetics, and so any findings are tainted by a strong bias). You set out to research the effects that color cosmetics can have on people’s perception of faces. In two studies, you asked participants to rate the same female faces with or without color cosmetics. For the faces adorned with makeup, you varied the style of makeup from minimal (i.e., natural), to moderate (i.e., professional), to dramatic (i.e., glamorous). In each style of makeup you increased the contrast between the facial features and surrounding skin.
But here is where your study and your attempt to find deeper meaning and broader application for your tiny study becomes nothing but an ill-conceived and poorly executed marketing strategy. Your study focuses on whether makeup can increase the perceived “competence” of women. But competence is not a compliment. Garner’s Modern American Usage explains that “[c]ompetence usually bears the general sense ‘a basic or minimal ability to do something.” Maybe Procter & Gamble expects its female employees to aim only for mere competence. Most women I know aim a bit higher.
Women aren’t going to wear makeup to show that they have the minimal ability to do anything. If a woman chooses to spend 20 minutes (or more) applying makeup to alter how she is perceived, trust me, she isn’t striving to receive a judgment of just adequate.
Maybe more troubling is what your study implies if a woman does not wear makeup. By implication, you are saying that without makeup, women are perceived as incompetent. And that is deeply offensive on many levels.
But lets put that aside, and pretend that mere competence is all that women aim for. Your study still is ridiculous. Competence is the state of being adequate to do a certain something. But your study never specifies what that something is. Were the women wearing makeup perceived at possessing more competence to conduct brain surgery? To pilot an aircraft? Or to mow their lawn? There is a big difference.
You may say — and rightly so — that makeup really does alter how people perceive women. We all know this to be true. That is why women have spent the last thousand years or so slathering it on. And, makeup can make you look and feel better. But you should know that by funding a study to suggest that women have to wear makeup to appear to possess competence, you will anger a good percentage of your customer base. This mentality is precisely what women have been fighting against. See, e.g., “Your Lack of Mascara Is an Sign of Your Utter Incompetence” [Jezebel]; “Is Procter & Gamble Trying to Blackmail Women into Buying Makeup?” [The Gloss].
You still might feel, nevertheless, that this is an important scientific study, and that women need to be armed with this information so that they can better equip themselves with eyeliners and lipsticks if they choose to do so. That is awesome. That is third-wave feminism. But you should be aware that how you go about disseminating this information matters. If you are going to conduct studies like this, do it right. This study feels more like a publicity stunt, than an honest attempt at determining the true answer to the question. One problem is that the sample size was so small. There were only two groups surveyed in this study (one group was asked to make a snap judgment after quickly viewing the photos, and the other group was given unlimited time to view the photos), and each group was fewer than 150 people. Another problem is that there was no attempt at replication to confirm your data. You are Procter & Gamble, you can afford to do better science than this.
And if you are going to prepare a press release, write one that doesn’t encourage the mainstream media to over-interpret your data. Your press release has been picked up everywhere with lots of cute sound bytes that aren’t supported by the data. See, e.g.,
- “Up the Ladder, Lipstick in Hand [NYT];
- “Lipstick and Eyeliner May Be the Secret Ingredients of Looking Smart at Work” [Business Insider];
Finally, if you are going to employ a researcher to study how cosmetics can make women appear to possess more competence, make sure your researcher wears enough make up in the video so that she too can reap the benefit of the study and be perceived as competent.