Q: I know some perfumes are considered masculine or feminine, but how does the perceived gender of a perfume really affect how people perceive me?
A: Actually it might make more of a difference than you think. Masculine scents actually carry a certain message to those who perceive you. This can make a big difference when you’re trying to communicate as much as possible – such as a job interview.
A research study was published in 2002 in the European Journal of Social Psychology examining the effect of wearing gendered perfume on employment desirability and perceived leadership.
The study wasn’t so much about perfume as it was about stereotypes. The effect they found should tell us something about how stereotypes work and how scents can influence perception.
Generally, men are stereotypically seen as better leaders than women.
Masculine traits are often equated with leadership.
Thus, the researchers suggested that a masculine vs. a feminine scent would change how people perceive a person.
In order to get perfumes that were strongly considered “masculine” and “feminine,” the researchers got a group of 60 people to smell 12 perfumes.
- Half of the perfumes were marketed as masculine, half were marketed as feminine.
Then, the researchers asked the participants to rate each perfume as either masculine or feminine.
The researchers picked the most masculine-rated perfume and the most feminine-rated perfume for the next experiment.
First, the researchers wanted to see if the scent would influence how a person’s job application would be perceived.
The researchers invented a job application and gave it to a group of participants to rate. There were a few different versions of the application.
- There were male and female versions (the name was different but otherwise the details were identical).
- Some were scented with the masculine perfume.
- Some were scented with the feminine perfume.
- Some were unscented.
74 participants then took the applications out of the envelope and rated them on the following questions:
- Would you employ the job applicant?
- How certain do you feel about your decision?
In both cases (for both the male and female applicant), the masculine scent was associated with a higher rate of hiring and a stronger certainty in that decision than the feminine scent.
- The feminine scent performed worst of all the categories (for both the female and the male application).
However, the researchers also found that generally the unscented application did the best.
- They hypothesized that a scented paper application was distracting, annoying, or overpowering.
- They suggested that a job application was the wrong place to use fragrance – the context is completely wrong.
This time, the researchers wanted to see what happened if the same experiment were performed, except the perfume went on a person rather than a piece of paper.
116 participants were recruited to pretend they were personnel managers evaluating a potential junior manager.
- They were given a standard set of questions to ask the candidate.
The job seekers were part of the research team and were trained to memorize and recite a standard set of answers to questions in the job interview.
Each participant evaluated only one candidate and then was asked whether they would hire the person they just interviewed.
- Some of the candidates wore a masculine scent, some wore a feminine scent, and some wore no perfume at all.
This time, both male and female candidates wearing a masculine scent were “hired” with greater frequency and certainty than any other group.
The effect found in experiment 1 (where the perfume tended to hurt the candidates) was not present in this study, suggesting that a job interview is the right context to use a scent to your advantage.
When the interviewer is female and the job seeker was male, the effect of a masculine scent was particularly strong.
- This was also true when the interviewer is male and the job seeker was female – masculine scents actually improved a female’s chances of being hired by a male.
In both experiments, a masculine scent increased the likelihood and certainty of a person being hired (compared to a feminine scent).
In the experiment intended to mimic an actual interview, the masculine scent was best compared to both feminine scents and no scent.
Feminine scents tended to hurt candidates.
The researchers suggested that this is, indeed, the result of stereotypes. Masculinity is associated with leadership, decisiveness, and authority.
The unfortunate side is that women are not naturally perceived as leaders – they have to work extra hard to overcome this stereotype. They can actually do this with a more masculine perfume.
But the fact of the matter is, masculine perfumes do have an effect – and in the case of a job interview, it’s a highly positive one.
Men can increase their likelihood of being hired and being perceived as fitting a leadership role with a more masculine scent.
Sczesny, S., & Stahlberg, D. (2002). The influence of gender-stereotyped perfumes on leadership attribution. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32, 815-828. Link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.123/abstract