HutchinsonI was listening to my local radio morning show last week when the discussion got to the clothes that Hillary Clinton wears.  The consensus was that she dresses horribly – she’s a multimillionaire and could afford better clothes so why does she wear dumpy pant suits?  This brought to mind a discussion that my business partner, Meredith, and I had earlier this year.  When Hillary Clinton started her campaign, most of the commentators were always talking about what she was wearing – so Hillary started wearing the same outfit until people stopped talking about what she was wearing and talked about what she was saying.

So what has Hillary’s pant suit have to do with my business partner’s hair?  Everything.

You see, Meredith is a natural blonde.  But she has dyed her hair a dark brunette ever since she was cast as Bilbo in the Hobbit when she was a freshman in high school.

As Bilbo, she had to keep her hair brunette for several weeks and she noticed when she wasn’t on stage that people treated her differently – they treated her was if she was more intelligent.  Which is one of the funniest things because of our four children, Meredith is likely the one with the highest IQ.  (Yes, my business partner is my daughter – and so is my other daughter, Emily.)  By the way, all my children are smarter than me.

So Meredith keep her hair brunette because people react differently to a brunette – they assume she’s smart whereas they assumed she was dumb when she was a blond.  This has been borne out in countless social experiments.

Really!!

If you were to ask people if hair color determines intelligence, you would get universal negativity.  But when it comes to behavior, people treat blonds as less intelligent.  How many dumb blond jokes are there compared to dumb brunette jokes?

Now I’d be one of the first to tell you that presentation – the way you look – is important [link to blog post] in the business world.  You want to look like someone that can get the job done and someone that people would want to work with.  Generally, that means wearing business-like clothes and taking care of personal hygiene.  And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s part of the social graces that allows for relatively frictionless interactions – the social equivalent of obeying traffic rules so everyone knows how drivers are supposed to behave on the roads safely and avoid accidents.

This illustrates a burden that women in the workplace – and society, in general – have to deal with daily.  Donald Trump doesn’t have to worry about people commenting on what suit he’s wearing today – they focus on what he’s saying, doing or, more likely, tweeting.  But if Hillary were to show up at a campaign stop wearing a dress, the dress would take center stage and the message would be lost.

So Hillary made her clothes boring by choosing to wear essentially the same thing every day.  And Meredith changed the color of her hair for the same reason.  So the message would take center stage.

Being able to focus on the message is an important skill.

But we are socially programmed to focus on the insignificant.  Why?  Well, the short answer is – it’s easy.

In organizations it means that substance loses out to appearance – with a resultant loss of efficiency and effectiveness.  It’s a cruel joke we play on ourselves while pretending to be organized, logical and efficient – we’re not.  And when this is pointed out, we quickly mount rationalizations to justify our behavior.

And while this is a society problem – just look at the difference between magazines for teenage boys and teenage girls – the only answer is individual training to resist the easy answers of following societal norms.  Because population trends are not in favorite of keeping the same old beliefs in place – there’s not enough smart people to ignore anyone who is smart or talented.  And whatever you are trying to do, having smart people to help or to actually do what you need is going to be critical.  The result is that the largest group of underutilized people – women – are constantly being judged by criteria that have nothing to do with success in business where results are the ultimate measure.

So the next time you are evaluating a person, try to set aside preconceived notions – examine your thoughts and ask why am I thinking this?  If the answer is one that you won’t want to public exclaim, then rethink your evaluation.

You will be the winner.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.