For women, wearing makeup at work can be a complex issue. They must balance looking professional with the risk of being objectified. Overall, research shows that use of cosmetics signals status. A new paper, published in October 2016 in Perception, examines how it projects success—while explaining some of its costs.

In the first of two experiments, researchers photographed 40 female college students with and without makeup and presented them to another group of 128 (mostly heterosexual) male and female undergraduates. The observers rated the pictures on “attractiveness” and two components of social status, “dominance” and “prestige.” The words were left undefined, but dominance typically refers to control over others through force or threat, whereas prestige is freely offered respect. In this study, women wearing makeup were seen by men (but not women) as more prestigious and seen by women (but not men) as more dominant. Viktoria Mileva, a researcher at the University of Stirling in Scotland and the paper's primary author, calls this asymmetry a “standout surprise.”

The researchers speculated that men tend not to see women as physically threatening, and so makeup should not affect their ratings of dominance. Women, on the other hand, might see their peers in makeup as sexually competitive and thus socially dominant. Meanwhile men might see women in makeup as prestigious because, as past studies show, attractive people are assumed to be competent. This positive “halo effect” might be absent in female observers because they feel socially threatened.

The researchers conducted a second study to see if makeup really does trigger feelings of sexual competition. Forty-eight new female undergraduates evaluated the photos from the first study, answering questions such as “How jealous would you feel if this woman were to interact with your partner?” The participants judged women in makeup to be more attractive to men and more promiscuous and predicted they would feel more jealousy toward them.

“The idea that a woman is always suspicious of other women wearing makeup is a little over the top,” Mileva observes. “But in certain contexts there may be some cause for concern.” Reactions may be different in the real world and with older men and women. But we could all be more careful with the assumptions that we make about a woman's appearance at work.