Home Work Career Confessions Do I Look too Young to be Taken Seriously at Work?

A note from Nicole: Today’s post is a MUST READ for every young female professional out there! Regardless of what industry you are in- this doesn’t just happen in business, ask your friends who are teachers- you are likely to face some pressure (if not just plain old insecurity) about appearing too young.

I’ve personally dealt with this quite a bit, especially when I was selling mortgages to people more than twice my age at my first job, and working with seasoned business owners, attorneys and bankers at my second job.

I made the same efforts that Melody did in the post below until my Mom (an experienced businesswoman/owner) said, “Who cares!  If you’re good, you’re good. Focus on doing a great job, serving your clients and getting back to them right away if you don’t know the answer to something.  Believe me people won’t care how old you’re if you’re doing a great job.”

And she was right.  As a new manager, I just finished a long round of interviewing and hiring two new marketing coordinators for my team.  In hindsight, there’s no doubt that my final choices were made largely on self-confidence (not experience or age).  Keep these stories in mind before you waste time doubting yourself or trying to make yourself look older!

Thanks for a great post Melody!

By, Melody Sabedra

As a young female professional with a baby face, I often find it hard to gain the acceptance of the older executives within my company. Once when I was in the process of being hired, my then boss stated that because I looked so young I should try to dress in darker colors. He claimed that only younger people wore bright colors. Being that I had just been offered a job in this down economy, I took the advice with a smile on my face. I mean, the person had just hired me so they couldn’t possibly be criticizing me, right?

Since that date, I experienced many more times when I was told how to dress, look or appear in order to be perceived as older and more professional. At first these suggestions were welcomed, as I was completely unaware that I was appearing too young to look professional. However, after a while I started to get upset. These repeated suggestions made me wonder, does it really matter how young or old I look to be successful in my career? I got my answer as I was walking into the attorneys section of a courthouse when someone inside the room said, “this room is only for attorneys young lady.” I shut the door and went to the bathroom to hide from the embarrassment of not looking like an attorney when I was one.

That statement definitely lead me to the reality that no matter what I think or how I feel, others perceive me as a ‘young lady.’ My next thought was that I had to try to do something to make myself look older so that I could appear more professional. In an effort to accomplish this goal, I tried numerous things. I first decided to cut my hair into a short angled bob style. As a result, my hair went from below my shoulders to right about the height of my chin. Although this was a drastic change, when I came into work the next day the first thing my boss said to me was, ‘I like that haircut, it is very professional.’ Apparently the haircut was a success.

Then I attempted wearing more makeup to work, as I had heard that maybe wearing more makeup would make me look older. Now, I generally always wear a little mascara, powder, blush, and eye shadow, which I thought was pretty standard. In an attempt to look a little older, I decided to wear darker eye shadows and more blush. This looked ok, but I found it kind of an onerous task for an everyday habit. I also tried to wear lipstick, which I NEVER wear. The result of my makeup extravaganza is that I ended up feeling stupid, like a young girls trying on her mother’s makeup. I started to give up trying to look older.

Then one day during a lunch conference, I noticed a ‘young lady’ that was a guest speaker at the event on the due diligence process of acquisitions (exciting stuff!). Although this woman appeared pretty young, there was something about her that made her appear very professional. While I was at the conference I couldn’t put my finger on just what it was about her. When I got back to the office I sat and thought about why that woman caught my attention. At first I thought it was the fact that she was speaking at an event, which would make anyone appear professional. Then I came to the conclusion that it was not that she was speaking or that she was wearing a nice suit, she looked professional because she had an exuberant amount of confidence. This confidence made her look and appear older and more professional than I am sure she was.

From that day on I realized that persuading others to trust you in business is not always about what you look like. Sometimes all it takes is just a little bit of confidence. Through my experiences of being an extremely fresh faced attorney, I have learned that I need to portray confidence to my client in order to be respected. Obviously a client is going to trust an attorney who appears to know what they are doing over someone who stares at them like a deer in headlights.

Just think about it, when you are in any type of a business meeting with people who have been in your field longer than you, what draws you into listening to some people and not others? I did this one day at a meeting. I looked around the room as everyone talked and I took notes of who I actually paid attention to and who I caught myself day-dreaming to. The result was that the people with the loudest voice and the most charisma caught my attention more than the quiet wallflower type who was only speaking because he was forced into doing so. It was their confidence that made me listen to them. It is confidence that can turn you into a true professional, not a haircut or a fabulous suit.

So next time someone tries to tell you that you should look a certain way to appear more professional, don’t take offense to it. Rather, think about how you are presenting yourself to other people. Ensure that you are always portraying an image of confidence, even in your weakest moment.

20 replies to this post
  1. wow thank you Melody for sharing your story. While confidence is one of those things which we seem to just *know* is a good thing, your story spelt out one of the ways how. A valuable read for all – Keep up the good work!

  2. What a great post! I find that this is particularly tough in the startup world where everyone dresses casual… when everyone else is wearing jeans and flip flops you want to fit in, but it’s easy to look like a college kid when you dress like that and appear very young. It’s really all about the way you carry yourself, how you act and how you communicate face to face and through emails in my opinion.

  3. This is excellent because I definitely find myself struggling with this as well. I’m constantly told how young I look, and it definitely saps away any confidence I might feel because I also feel really inexperienced.

    So thanks for writing this post; it’s amazing.

  4. Great article! My line of work also gave me a difficult time with looking too young to be a department head, director or senior staff at age 24 let alone being the only male on staff. You are very right about confidence though, now that I have been able to build it up and present myself with defined confidence and deliver with my work. Confidence is key!
    By the way Melody I’m very proud and happy to have gotten to know you. You’re going places :-D

  5. Hi Melody – great post. This is such a huge thing that I deal with all the time. I am 27, blonde, petite, and look nothing like the Executive that I want to be. Currently, I am a ‘coordinator’, and am looking for another job where I could possibly be a manager or associate director, etc. However, I need to gain the confidence that you were talking about, because once I get the interview, I freak out that they will take one look at me and decide that I don’t fit the bill. Thanks for letting me know that I am not alone!

  6. Thank you for the positive feedback. I struggle a lot with trying to look professional. Sometimes I look at myself and still feel like a little girl even though I am a qualified and licensed attorney. I have come to the conclusion that no matter what I wear or try to do to make myself look older, nothing changes the way I really look. I cant help that I have freckles or fine hair. People always tell me that one day I will be happy that people think I look so young, but I am still waiting for that day. I try and remind myself that although I look young I can do anything I put my mind to.

    Bre C., if you get an interview know that you are qualified for the position. As Nicole said above, she hired people because of their confidence. Walk into the interview room and know that you are qualified and that you can have the job if you want it. Everyone gets nervous at interviews, even people that look confident. Try focusing on your qualifications and walk into the room thinking that they would be lucky to get someone as hard working and qualified as you. Appearing confident IS possible even if you are extremely insecure.

    Jose V, thanks for the message. I can relate to the way you feel about being the only gender on a staff. Sometimes I look around at board meetings and realize that I am the only woman, which can be intimidating. Although I think that being the only woman is a lot different than being the only man, I can understand why you would feel different. Just know that you are super smart and talented :)

    Janet is right, when you are in a situation in which you are not given the opportunity to wear the flashy clothes (like a nice suit) that makes it even harder to look professional. Although people in a start up office may be dressing really casual, you can try to look a little more sophisticated by wearing cute and conservative casual clothing. Nothing too flashy, but nothing too casual as well. Dont wear something that you would lounge around the house in, but dont look like you are going on an interview. Find a happy medium. I often find that the days that I dress up a little more result in me getting more compliments, which in turn makes me feel happier. As we all know, it doesn’t make us feel beautiful to dress in sweats all day. The same is true with work. Sometimes it is nice to look a little better and mor polished than everyone else.

    **IF you would like to check out some more of my articles visit my blog at http://www.legalinthecity.typepad.com.**

  7. I really enjoyed reading this article, as I am entering the workplace and I am constantly told that I am to young. In the medical field it is especially difficult because I have people’s lives in my hands on a daily basis and it is only natural for a patient to want the “BEST” when it comes to their health. I have found that although on the initial meeting they may think I appear to be too young, I make sure that by the end of the visit that they have confidence in me by appearing confident myself. I definitely do not know all the answers, and I never will but my patients do not have to know that. Thanks Mel for this awesome article!

  8. Great article! I can definitely relate to your experiences being a young woman in the workplace. It has made it harder for me to get promoted and respected, but in the end, it really is your confidence and hard work that will pay off (I did get that promotion eventually). It really irked me for a while because it wasn’t an across the board treatment of young women…many of the women at my work are only 1-5 years older than I, but were in much higher positions even with similar backgrounds as mine. I chalk it up to being hired in earlier (I’ve been here longer than them, so I think they thought of me still as my young new-grad self), and perhaps not appearing as confident. Things have definitely gotten better, though.

    Funny about the hair…after I chopped my hair short on a whim, the HR director stopped to compliment me profusely about it. I’m growing it back out now, though. :)

  9. I know just how Melody felt. In my first few years at my career, the biggest compliment I remember receiving was from my client’s assistant. I showed up to my client’s west coast office for the first time but i had spoken with his assistant many times before. When I met her, she said “Oh, I thought you were much older.” I knew I would never love a comment like that in future years, but right then, it sounded pretty good.

  10. I felt the need to comment on this as someone who is the youngest member of her team (and quite possible of my entire division of 100 people). A lot of people (including my boss and co-workers) are surprised when they find out my age. I agree with the post that part of it is confidence. You have a job to do, and quite clearly they believe you’re capable of it because you got it and are now holding it, so always keep that attitude. You should act like a professional, not just in how you dress but simply how you interact with both co-workers and clients. My office is business casual, sometimes more on the casual side, but I always make sure to dress slightly better than what I want to. For example, today I wore on jeans (dark wash) and a white T-shirt, so I threw on a blazer and made sure my shoes were more professional looking. And then of course I went about my work day, interacting with clients, helping them troubleshoot, etc. It’s a balance, and I think you would do yourself a disservice to let you concern about looking too young get in the way of proving yourself through your hard work.

  11. This a very interesting post, with great tips and hope for all the young-looking females out there. The only thing I thought was missing was… how about addressing the sexist and ageist behaviours that are sadly common in our society? I think everybody should have confidence; it’s a really good thing to possess. But precisely because of the way they are looked down on, young women are the least likely to possess that confidence. It isn’t just something you can personally decide to have or not. Confidence is often a consequence of how people treat you and make you feel.

    Someone could start off with a normal amount of confidence and completely lose it after being repeatedly patronized, criticized and generally not taken seriously. Whereas an older-looking male with the same initial amount of confidence would be able to keep building it up if others instantly made him feel important and like he deserved his own confidence.

    I wish sexism and ageism were more readily identified and condemned, more like racism is. How would you feel if you read an article about a non-Caucasian person saying, “because I am dark, people don’t take me seriously at my workplace, so I have tried all I could to bleach my skin, until I realized that the most important thing was confidence”. Even though the conclusion is right, I would still be horrified at how submissive this person initially was, allowing patent discrimination against herself to go on for so long instead of asserting immediately that AGE, GENDER or RACE should not matter.

  12. I am so glad I found this post! I started working as a financial professional at the age of 23 and took over my dad’s business (when he passed away) at age 25. I’m not bragging when I say this, but I just don’t look my age. To this day I have been told by many older people that I am way to young, and they would “prefer someone more experienced”. If they only knew that I endured a 2 year apprenticeship, have 7 years of experience, and passed tests that many of my peers couldn’t even comprehend!
    I cut/died my hair and wore clothes that were waaaaaay too old for me (I ended up looking like a bag lady). Why did some of these guys who had less experience and licenses do so well? Confidence! I wholeheartedly believe this! Fake it until you make it!
    Now when I receive a judgmental comment, I merely invite the person to let me show them what I can do! Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I have turned some people who wouldn’t give me the light of day into clients! What a hurdle to cross!
    Blow your own socks off! Show yourself what you can accomplish. You will slowly build that confidence which will lead you to success!

  13. Great article! Definitely something I relate to well. I’ve always had the so-called “baby face” and never was one to wear makeup, so when I start experimenting, I just end up feeling and looking ridiculous.

    It really is true that confidence will get you so much farther, but honestly, in this world appearance does have a great amount to do with it. I think natural makeup and finding the proper business apparel is equally important to look professional and be taken seriously.

    But, confidence will have to work to overcome the “baby face” syndrome lol

  14. I am 37, a successful professional (VP for a big bank). I often get the comment that I look 18-22. I am completely confident and know my stuff, but I still get annoyed about the comment of looking too young. In my workplace, I have to extra loud to get heard, because I am petite. As a reality, I am great at what I do, but if I have 2 seconds with the c-levels, I have to waste 1 second projecting abnormally to quickly get the misconception out of their heads. I am just saying, it gets tiring.
    Everywhere I go, I often get horrible service because people think I am a teenager. For example, I went to the bank to withdraw funds, I was questioned as to why I need to withdrawn that much money and addressed as ‘young lady… sweetie, you’ll have to understand how a bank works’. I would probably say, it’s no different than telling someone that they are too big or too old to do something and treated negatively.
    As a result, I am just saying, I am confident without a doubt…but my patience wears thin in such ridicuous situations.

  15. THIS WAS GREAT. THANKS FOR THE ADVICE. IT REALLY UPLIFTED ME AND HELPED ME TO GAIN CONFIDENCE IN MYSELF. I AM GOING ON AN INTERVIEW TO BE A COUNSELOR FOR CHILDREN AND I AM 20 YEARS OLD. THE PROBLEM IS THAT I HAVE A BABY FACE. PEOPLE WOULD PERCEIVE ME AS A 13 OR 14 YEAR OLD.

  16. Needed that! Even with a 10 year old son, I am carded and asked if I am his older sister! Frusterating to say the least. At the office I am told .. “the biggest hurdle with clients will be your youthful appearance”– So what–I’ll be 30 in a few days and a look day over 17! Ha ha. Confidence is key~ you say? I’m going to stick with that. Thanks!

  17. Thank for the article, I struggle with this as well (I am 33 and look about 26-27), but that’s not the problem, a man at 27 would be well respected) and I have run out of ideas of what to do. Confidence helps, but sometimes it is just not enough. People (mostly men, but believe it or not, also women), just don’t take women as seriously as men, and eventually we women start doubting ourselves, and it really directly interferes with our work. I have found myself often have to fight fights that no man would be subjected to. I think the only thing to do is to dress nice and conservative, no heels, very little makeup, smile less, and fight back immediately at any insult. You will be labeled as a crazy bag lady, but at least you will have time to get some work done.

  18. I promise you it doesn’t get any better the older you are.

    When I was trying to break into the corporate world 30 years ago, I was told to go home and bake cookies and have babies. Seriously!

    I also looked very young for my age.

    It really is about sexism which people don’t seem to want to address head on.
    We skip around it talking about how to dress and confidence but the bottom line is women still aren’t taken as seriously as men.

    If you look at the popular entrepreneurs, motivational speakers, they are mostly men.
    I am sure there are many women who have successful business and write great self help books but they just aren’t mentioned.

    In the board room, a man says something it is just taken as he said it. A woman says something, she is expected to prove it or her idea is just dismissed and when a man brings up the same idea 10 minutes later, then it is a good idea.

    I run my own business and the way I deal with this sexism is just not deal with people like that at all. There are plenty of other clients.

    This young man thought he would just order me around and make threats to me and right then I realized that this guy would never speak to his boss in this way or another male executive this way. I called him on it and ended the business right there.

  19. I can empathize. I am a 31 year old licensed attorney, but I look 17-18 years old. (In fact, a few months ago, an individual told me in a very condescending tone about “the importance of staying in school.” This person thought, because I was running errands on a weekday, that I was truant. So much for my degrees.)

    I find that confidence alone is insufficient. No matter how certain I feel, my circular face, round brown eyes, and natural curls make me look naive. I have started to use pointed statements of fact and argument to dispel this perception. I look my age when I sound well-informed and self-aware.

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