How looking young can shape your career

As with other forms of bias, it’s possible that people from certain racial backgrounds may be more at risk. It’s been suggested that part of the reason Asian people stereotypically look young for their age might be because baby-faced traits are more common in this group.

However, there are a couple of things young-looking people can do to adjust the way they’re seen in the workplace.

The most obvious option is to change your appearance. Research has shown that 20-something women look older when they wear makeup – though surprisingly, this is not true for older age groups – and adding makeup, trousers and jewellery can boost how competent a woman seems as a leader. On the other hand, people view men with beards as older and higher status than those who are clean-shaven. They’re also generally seen as more capable.

The question is, do you want to alter how you look, to overcome the irrational biases of other people?

As it happens, there is an alternative. Nicola Simpson, an executive career coach based in London, says she regularly encounters this issue – but she’s not always convinced that how her clients look is actually the underlying issue. “This comes up quite often when clients come to a coaching session lacking in confidence and feeling a sense of imposter syndrome,” she says.

In Simpson’s experience, people can struggle with perceptions of how young they look in any profession, though it’s slightly more common among management consultants and people in leadership roles. “Maybe they’re at a point in their career where they want to convey leadership and gravitas, and they feel that they look young for their years – and that this is being held against them,” says Simpson, “but equally they’re often feeling ‘maybe I am too young to be in a managerial position’.”  

To overcome this, Simpson tries to help her clients with what is within their control. Rather than dwelling on how the outside world views them, she tends to focus on helping them to understand where their anxieties are coming from. “Our conversations are more about what they could do to feel more confident – bringing in tools to reframe their thinking into something that’s much more positive and supportive.”

Simpson suggests trying to be aware of when you’ve been triggered by fears about how you’re perceived, and consciously shifting your thoughts to a more positive outlook. If you project confidence, you’ll automatically seem more competent – regardless of what biases are really at work in the minds of your colleagues.

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