Business

Miss Conduct

‘Mad Men’ analyzed: Looking the part

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Don has a mature face. Pete has a baby face. Neither of their faces look trustworthy by now because we’ve been watching the show for seven years.

“You don’t seem like a lawyer.” – Peggy Olson

“I once left a firm in Boston because they felt the same way.” –Peggy Olson’s date

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“Do you know how great you’re going to look on a book jacket?” –Pete Campbell

“I’ve thought about it.” – Ken Cosgrove

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“What you’re saying is I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you. And that’s very, very true.” – Joan Harris to Peggy Olson

Do you look the part?

“Severance,” the first episode of “Mad Men”’s final half-season, is all about appearances. It begins with a casting call for a commercial for fur coats, and ends with Don in a diner, contemplating which of his past mistresses the waitress/prostitute Diane reminds him of.

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Appearance matters in the workplace. Would Dick Whitman have been able to reinvent himself as Don Draper and talk his way into the glittering 1 percent if he’d looked like Steve Buscemi instead of Jon Hamm? Probably not.

But the equation isn’t as simple as “beautiful is better.” In “Severance,” as so often in the course of the show, Peggy and Joan are shown as opposite sides of women’s dilemma in the workplace. In their agonizing, almost ripped-from-the-headlines meeting with Topaz Pantyhose, Joan was the target of endless dirty jokes while Peggy was simply ignored. Beauty can be a handicap in the workplace as well as a plus: Discrimination against attractive women in stereotypically male jobs is such a well-known phenomenon that psychologists have dubbed it the “beauty is beastly effect.” (And yes, in April 1970, selling pantyhose was still considered a “man’s job.”) Looking good isn’t enough — it’s better to look like the stereotype of the job you’re trying to do (or get).

The word “stereotype” calls to mind the kind of crude sexist and ethnic categorization that the “Mad Men” crew indulge in with thrilling shamelessness. (Really, Ken Cosgrove? You didn’t fit in at McCann because “I’m not Irish. I’m not Catholic. And I can read”? Don’t be showing your face in Boston with an attitude like that!) One of the most innate and intransigent stereotypes, however — and one that has tremendous workplace impact — has to do with whether a person is baby-faced or mature-looking.

One of the major researchers in the field of faces and stereotyping is Brandeis’s Leslie Zebrowitz, who writes on her website that “[P]eople of all ages whose facial qualities resemble those of infants (e.g., large eyes, round faces, small chins) are perceived to have childlike traits and are treated differently from the mature-faced in real-world venues, such as employment and the justice system.” The baby-faced are believed to be more submissive, warm, and trustworthy, and also less competent, than their mature-faced peers. Within the advertising industry itself, this can create a paradox: Should a company’s message be delivered by the most expert and authoritative face available, or the most likeable and trustworthy one? (Answer: Maturity rules when times are good and the company is building on a base of strong customer relations. In the throes of a PR crisis, though? Cattle call for babyfaces!)

In 2013 I wrote about office politics for the babyfaced when a young woman asked for advice after a colleague told her she “looked twelve.” I advised her to “Take advantage of the fact that in a frightened world, you are perceived as non-threatening. Learn to ask tough questions in a tender voice. At work or in your community, look for opportunities to be a link between groups or to represent your team or company to the outside world. And while you’re doing this, keep meticulous track of your objective, quantitative career accomplishments so that your hard skills are never in question.”

Babyfacedness can be handicap for people wanting to prove their leadership ability, with one fascinating exception: African-American CEOs. In a paper vividly entitled “The Teddy-Bear Effect: Does Having a Baby Face Benefit Black Chief Executive Officers?,” Robert Livingston and Nicholas Pearce from Northwestern University assert that the baby face, while detrimental to the career ambitions of white men, may have the opposite effect for black men: black CEOs overall were more babyfaced than their white peers, and “babyfaced Black CEOs tended to lead more prestigious corporations and earned higher salaries than mature-faced Black CEOs.”

Why is the effect reversed for African-American men? Because one of the racial stereotypes black men are subject to is that they are perceived as threatening. The baby face soothes white fears.

Appearance matters in the workplace, but it doesn’t matter in the same way for every person in every situation. You can’t change the bone structure that makes you babyfaced-or-not, but many other relevant aspects of appearance — clothes, hairstyle, body language — are under our control. The next time you’re getting ready for a major career event, instead of worrying pointlessly about looking shiny, try asking yourself these questions for a more focused, productive worry:

1. Who is my “audience”?

2. What is their stereotype of my demographic group? Of my job?

3. Do I want to go against those stereotypes, or reinforce them? Looking the part for your job works with colleagues, but if people outside your industry have a negative impression of it, there might be something to be said for not looking like the typical used-car salesman.

4. Is there something about my appearance that implies a backstory, like a Cosgrovian eyepatch? If so, what’s the best way to explain it quickly and get the conversation back on track?

5. In this situation, should I stand out or blend in?

Robin Abrahams writes the Miss Conduct advice column in the Globe Magazine and works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. She can be reached at missconduct@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @robinabrahams.
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