Are Beauties Bad for Business? Ban the Bias

Could beauty be a business liability? According to a recent edition of Harvard Business Review, it just might be. Well, if you are a woman that is. Professor Lead D. Sheppard of Washington State University and Stefanie K Johnson, an associate professor of the University of Colorado Boulder, published a study that showed how people will rate more attractive women in the workplace as “less truthful, less trustworthy as leaders and more deserving of termination than their ordinary-looking counterparts.” (“For Women in Business, Beauty is Liability”) Haven’t we heard that beautiful men and women have a leg up in business? I’ve written about this in a number of past posts (“Hotties Get More For Free” and “Did Newsweek Get It Right?” to name a few.) The article does point out that other studies have shown women rated high on the appearance scale did benefit from being seen as more competent. While that too reflects bias, I can see how that makes sense, i.e. if you assume those women who care for their appearance may also care for their work. But to assume anyone, based on their looks alone, is more or less truthful and honest, is disturbing, to say the least.  

Was it the methodology that was out of whack? Doesn’t appear that way. The professors had participants in the study read fictional articles about certain people with their photos attached, and then these participants were asked to rate the honesty of the people featured. The articles were quoting leaders explaining why certain people were laid off due to economic conditions (vs anyone’s failures). While the content remained the same, the pictures changed. There were pictures of more or less attractive men and women. Attractive men were regarded the same as unattractive men with regard to the different attributes. Not so for women.

The professors attribute some of this bias to our long history of believing women use their attractiveness to lure men. (Scary that this STILL is so deeply embedded in us.) Another reason for this bias is the long history of some women using their attractiveness to compete for men to climb social and economic ladders. Think beauty contests for example.

Many would argue that attractive people have it easier in life. There have been studies showing how attractive people get more attention, higher salaries for example. But that’s based on bias too! I’m so thrilled to say that we are now living in time of pushing to bust our biases, and a call for inclusion ALL people — all genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, in our schools, offices and media. But there are many other forms of bias we have to be aware of too. And women’s appearance, especially, is one of them. Let’s start by recognizing this is an issue, and remind ourselves that ALL people deserve a fair chance. Sexism is NOT ok. End of story.

Stop the Discrimination!

Amanda Knox

In my continual quest to dig deeply into our complex relationship with beauty (beautiful things and beautiful people), I found another story about the disadvantages of being beautiful.   Sure, there are a TON of advantages to being good-looking, and they’re even proven by science.
But we human beings just don’t like it when people have unfair advantages.  And so we tend to negatively discriminate against them in order to level the playing field.
I get it in a way.  But such bias can really be detrimental.
In the December 2011 issue of Allure magazine, Rebecca Mead illustrates in “Hating the Beautiful” not only how biased against beautiful people we can be, but how influential that bias can be.  We’re not talking about just nasty talk around the water cooler or in the ladies bathroom.
Beautiful people are negatively discriminated against in the court room.  Amanda Knox anyone?   Beautiful people fare less well on job interviews if the interview is conducted by someone of the same-sex (unless the interviewer is attractive herself, then the bias isn’t evident).  Beautiful people can get unfair treatment in the office too.  Remember Deborahlee Lorenzana who was fired, she claims, for being too sexy?
In a world full of strife, must we ALSO be jealous of and mean to others who may have some advantages over us?  Also, who’s to say these beautiful people we discriminate against actually have it so good anyway?  Maybe if all embraced our sexuality and own beautiful assets fully, we wouldn’t be so jealous of others.
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Is Prohibiting Appearance Discrimination Fair For All?

I finally finished reading Deborah Rhode’s Beauty Bias.  (I gave my thoughts on the New York Times’s review of the book in an earlier post, A Legal Approach to Beauty.)

Rhode’s offers a compelling case for broader legislation against appearance discrimination.  Whether you’re obese or stick thin, sexy or frumpy, tall or short, wear no earrings or 10 of them, etc., your appearance should never be a factor in performance evaluations.  If you can do the job, appearance shouldn’t be an issue.  Ever.

Sounds great, right?

But wait a second, think I, this approach can have a dramatic impact on the brands I help create!  Why?  Because brands do a lot more than sell products.  They sell an image.  And that image is made up of many experiential and intangible elements, including the very people who sell it.  In other words, the appearance, behavior, and sense of style, i.e., the image, of personnel that come in contact with customers is itself a skill set.

Example: let’s say you own a luxury brand, and it’s critical that all touch points of the brand reflect the beauty and aspirations that your brand hopes to impart to prospective customers, especially since most luxury brands don ‘t have the “luxury” of using mass media to tell their brand “stories.”  I would advise you to design a magnificent showroom, create glossy, highly-styled print ads, and invest heavily in a captivating digital site that brings the splendor and details of the brand’s products to life.

But it would also be important that all personnel who come in contact with your customers reflect the brand’s values.  As such, they would need a variety of particular talents, and significant among these is that they would appear a certain way, e.g., polished, stylish and “aspirational.”  (By the way, the same holds true if we’re talking about brands on the total opposite end of the spectrum.  Can you imagine a coiffed, high-heeled sales professional with long talons at Home Depot advising you on how to install a kitchen in your home?  Would this person really inspire you to buy the product?)

Rhode is right in saying that if someone is able to do the job, he/she should never be discriminated against on the basis of appearance.  But what Rhode misses is that sometimes because of people’s appearances they actually can’t do the job.

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A Legal Approach to Beauty


My mother (and undoubtedly the biggest fan of my blog) alerted me to a book review in last weekend’s New York Times.  The subject of the review, The Beauty Bias: The Injustices of Appearance in Life and Law, by Deborah L. Rhode, investigates the legal issues surrounding appearance and the behaviors we all indulge in, e.g., diets, tight shoes and cosmetics, to maintain or perfect it.
I really look forward to reading the book whenever I get off my butt and head over to the nearest Borders.  It’s great that there is a voice for appearance discrimination. But midway through the review, the journalist references the perils we women subject ourselves to for beauty, like ruined backs from high heels or thinner wallets thanks to expensive wrinkle creams.  When I read this, I got a little annoyed.  Like most decisions in our lives, the desire to pursue that which enhances our beauty isn’t simple.  Women don’t beautify just because they are enslaved by cultural norms or men’s expectations.  For example, high heels may be in style or amplify our sexuality.  But I wear them because they make me feel powerful, strong and confident.  I enjoy how they look on and how they add a bit of zip to the typical black outfit I wear to work.  As Debra Gimlin states in Body Works, women negotiate the rules and expectations of beauty to create a meaningful solution for themselves.
After my initial reaction to the review, though, I was really inspired by Rhode’s efforts to focus on these issues simply because she’s taking the role of looks seriously.  So many women choose to stay away from this topic because it seems too girly.  But, as the sheer number of beauty blogs, magazines, TV shows and products indicates, beauty is serious business. It means a lot to people and, whether we like it now, it profoundly affects them – positively and negatively.  Kudos to Rhode for tackling the topic and making people seriously take notice of it.

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