You don’t get promoted for being cute

A hiring manager once told me that “you don’t get promoted for being cute.” We were having a post-mortem on an interview for a job and a promotion I didn’t get and I’d innocuously asked if there was anything I could do to improve for next time. It was one of those moments where you are too stunned to even come up with a good retort, much less document the conversation in order to file a formal complaint later.

She (yes, she) said that if it had been up to her, my CV would never even have been screened in, but the rest of the hiring committee out-voted her and I surprised her by getting one of the top grades on the written exam. If it was up to her, I wouldn’t even have been in the interview room.

When this woman said cute doesn’t get you promoted, she meant that she wasn’t going to give me points for likability or charm. She also meant she wanted to dock me points for cockiness and over-reaching. Cute is what we call grown women when we want to diminish them. As teenagers, my friends and I loathed being called cute. Cute was for little girls in ruffled ankle socks and hair bows. Cute isn’t impressive, it’s not “intelligent” or “powerful” or even “pretty”, and it isn’t even always about appearance. This woman wanted to screen out my application before she’d even met me, thinking that I was either too young or too inexperienced. Or both.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve been under-estimated. I’m five foot four, not quite 30, and cursed with curly hair Shirley Temple wouldn’t have been ashamed of. Most of the time, I can use it to my advantage and catch people off guard. I’ve learned that I can chair a meeting or teach a class better if I stand up (bonus points if I’m in heels) and speak with calm authority. I counteract cute with poise, and a lot of prep.

I’m sure it goes without saying that I was entirely qualified for the job. But there is a particular kind of criticism levelled at ambitious young women, designed to challenge us for showing traits that are valued in men. When we’re ambitious, people call us aggressive or abrasive. When we stand our ground, we’re called bitchy or pushy. And when people think we are out of our league, they use words like “cute” and “sweet” to cut us down.

I never did file a complaint. “Cute” was only a mild insult (I’ve heard much worse) but it was an insidious one. For weeks after, I thought more carefully about what I wore, how I carried myself, and how much space I took up in a room. If cute didn’t get you promoted, I wanted to be the opposite of cute: undeterred, un-diminishable, and never underestimated.