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.