Last summer an online magazine for entrepreneurial women elevated form over substance when it advised its audience to accessorize for that big negotiation and mimic the “look” of the person on the other side of the table. I responded with a post criticizing the undue focus on physical appearance:
Behind it lurks a whole array of social justice issues uncomfortable to discuss but urgent for us to face — women and aging, youth and beauty, race and skin color, antipathy toward the obese, prejudice against those with disabilities or deformities.
In urging women to “mimic” the look of their bargaining counterpart, how would the author of this article counsel the 60-year-old woman negotiating with her 30-year-old prospective boss? Or a woman of color negotiating in a predominately white workplace? Or a woman wearing a hijab? Or a woman with a face disfigured in a car crash, negotiating with people who are unscarred and whole?
We are told not to judge a book by its cover yet repeatedly we do nonetheless, reducing others to something less than the sum of their parts. We make snap judgments, too often wrong ones, on the basis of physical appearance. We mistake mere emblems of authority — the business suit or the white coat — for actual authority. We rely on beauty as a proxy for intelligence, social skills, and talent. And our discomfort with differences can lead those who are not disabled to stigmatize and shun those who are.
Consider the recent case of BBC children’s television host Cerrie Burnell. The BBC’s decision to cast Burnell, who has only one hand, sparked strong reaction from some parents who claimed that her disability would frighten children.
The BBC made the decision to hire Burnell; others obviously would not have. For those with disabilities not all barriers are made of concrete or stone. And some still block access to a seat at the negotiating table.