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.

Want to Fight Sexism? Don’t Eschew Beauty — Embrace It!

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Nigerian feminist and author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, hits the nail on the head, again!  This isn’t the first time I’ve brought her up.  You may recall that I wrote about this in a recent post,  Stand Beautiful on Feminism — For More Reasons Than You Think.

And this past week I brought her up again.  I had the privilege of speaking a lovely and brilliant group of people: the Professional Beauty Association.  While the topic of the conversation was tapping our innate creativity, there was NO WAY I wasn’t going to reference points of view of, examples of and my own stories around beauty.  One such example was Boots No.7’s recent partnership with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi.  I chose this story to point out how all brands, especially beauty brands, can have a bigger purpose than the just selling products. For Boots No7, make-up is a way for women to “speak louder.”  Who better to represent that thought than the brilliant, make-up wearing author?!

But the real reason this gorgeous and brilliant spokesperson is top of mind for me has to do with a recent interview of her I read in the New York Times.  In it she explains how she felt very comfortable in her native Nigerian expressing her beauty. But when she started moving in Western Circles she was worried she wouldn’t be taken seriously if she wore make-up and embraced her femininity with high heels or womanly clothing.  At first she succumbed to those fears and stopped wearing make-up.   But then she got her mojo back and went back to embracing her love for beauty.

More interestingly is her take on WHY we deem such behaviors — donning cosmetics, feminine clothing and high heels, as frivolous in the first place.  She attributes this disdain not on feminism but sexism! Here’s how she puts it:

“It’s about a culture that diminishes women. The things we traditionally think of as masculine are not things our culture dismissed as frivolous. Sports, for example, we think of as masculine. It’s something that our culture takes quite seriously. … I think it’s part of a larger picture of a world that simply doesn’t give women the same status that it gives men.”

Aha!  This reminds me of a post I wrote a number of years ago, When Goddesses Ruled. I tried to explain our culture’s discomfort with beauty.  Here’s what I wrote:

What explains this discomfort with beauty in our culture? I’ve spoken about the strong influence of Calvinistic doctrine that emphasizes productivity over sensual pursuits and the Puritanical aversion to Catholicism’s appreciation for the aesthetic (see Beauty is Beautiful).  And as women have fought to gain equality over the past few decades, they have sometimes felt the need to purposefully push “traditional” behaviors (like beautification) aside for more male ones, e.g. playing sports or working on Wall Street.

Here’s yet another explanation.  In “Look at My Ugly Face!”, Sara Halprin, psychologist, author, and documentary film-maker explains that in ancient societies, “women’s procreative power was understood to be linked to all sorts of creative abilities.”  Goddesses ruled!  But as men took on the claim of being the “creative ones,” and the more powerful of the two genders (and also more violent and competitive), around 4,000 years ago ,the biological act of childbearing, along with female sexuality and appearance, was downplayed.  Women’s sexuality had to be “visibly harnessed to the service” of men. “To justify the subjugation of women,” she continues, “her beauty was viewed with profound ambivalence, as a threat, a danger, as evidence of impurity, and at the same time, as the sole justification of a woman’s existence.”

Finally, Halprin points out how, up until recently, women were expected to be obedient to men and their beauty served as decorative support to their husbands.  Ironically though, women also ‘suffer from being perceived as dangerous to men…a woman’s beauty is associated with her sexual appeal and sex is viewed with suspicion by patriarchal society.”

As I examine my thoughts from the past and Ngozi Adichi’s words, I can’t help but think that NOT embracing our beauty is our giving in to social pressures and the ideals of masculinity over femininity.  Of course I believe we all should decide for ourselves what femininity looks like but all I can say is we shouldn’t shun it but rather relish in it.