By Jenna Goudreau
David Lewis, CEO of human resources consultancy OperationsInc, has been working in the HR industry for 25 years. Little surprises him. However, he could barely contain his astonishment when a recent client asked for advice on how to reshuffle management in his organization. "We're not going to consider her," the client said bluntly about one of his newly engaged employees. "Did you see the rock on her finger? It's only a matter of time before she's no longer here -- mentally or physically." Kim Kardashian (Getty Images)
While Lewis has encountered several instances of old-school sexism -- via mangers who perceive a sizable engagement ring as a countdown to wedding and motherhood distractions -- some women say a ring actually helped advance their careers.
In Pictures: Most Extravagant Celebrity Engagement Rings
Marta Segal Block, who now works in online event bookings, says when she was young and working for a nonprofit publisher, there was one older woman who always seemed uncomfortable around her. After Marta began sporting a diamond, the colleague suddenly became friendly and open. "My getting engaged helped us find something in common and something to talk about on a personal level," says Segal Block. "And once you've had that personal conversation, it's easier to relate professionally."
With over two million marriage proposals in the U.S. each year fueling a $60 billion jewelry industry, a female workers's ring-bling is fairly commonplace. Yet some career experts warn that more "showy" gems may increase an employer's perception that she is frivolous, less committed and opting off the executive track. On the other hand, some others argue that a "conservative" ring may make her seem more authoritative and mature.
"Employers can't legally ask about family plans so they may make bold and ignorant assumptions based on the ring," says Lewis. He's dealt with multiple company leaders who linked an expensive-looking ring with a wealthy fiancé. "It can cut her career off. They start thinking she doesn't need the position, isn't as hungry and will be less available. But very few verbalize it."
Back in reality, of course, a ring's appearance may have little to do with wealth and certainly nothing to do with drive. Lewis notes that one of his good friends proposed with a family heirloom that was worth more than a decade of the man's paychecks. Will his bride-to-be now pay the price for his great-grandfather's taste and bank account? (See here for the Most Extravagant Celebrity Engagement Rings)
Hilary Duff (Getty Images)
Career expert Lynne Lancaster, coauthor of The M-Factor: How the Millennial Generation Is Rocking the Workplace, believes the bias may be generational: "A big, blingy ring says to a boomer, 'My wedding is really important to me. How I look is really important to me.' To a boomer it implies frivolousness," she says. When it comes to a more traditional, conservative ring, however, the landscape becomes more complicated. Lancaster notes that it still presents the opportunity for drawing negative conclusions, but the ring may also signal to colleagues that the employee has become an adult.
"In some work cultures a married woman might be perceived as more stable, someone who won't be out partying," says Lancaster. The ring may also reduce some of that single-gal sexual tension: "In predominantly male cultures, like engineering, she might be seen as less threatening, and she may feel a greater comfort with the guys."
One 27-year-old software engineer working at a defense company in Santa Barbara, Cal., says her engagement was a professional help, not a hindrance. As part of a mostly male, 40-something work environment, for years she had tried to seem more competent by cropping her hair, dressing more formally and monitoring her speech. Yet she didn't notice a perception shift until she donned a diamond two years ago.
"It makes you seem more like an adult presence and people treat you a little differently, especially on first impressions and in meetings," she says, adding that her ring is decent-to-normal sized. "It lends a sense of seriousness. You're more secure, and others may respect you more."
At the end of the day, it leaves women in a precarious position, particularly because an engagement ring is a gift and often not of their choosing. Should they wear it proudly and hope for the best?
"You don't have a lot of control over what people decide to read into it," Lewis notes. If the stakes are high and you're going into an interview "there's some merit to taking it off if you feel it may be a distraction or detraction," he says. "But if you get the job, are you never going to wear it?"
Whether on the job or in the interview, Lancaster advises that you keep the ring on but work to build your credibility through your skills and accomplishments. Plus, take down the wedding dress screensaver.
More from Forbes: