“There’s this very famous line: ‘A beautiful face for radio’. Yet I’m quite sure that even among radio announcers, the ones who are better looking get paid more,” says Daniel Hamermesh, US economist and author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful.
Beauty bias pervades our entire professional life, from the initial hiring process to our final salary outcomes. Therefore, those who Daniel dubs the ‘looks-challenged’ are considered less sociable, less intelligent, and less charismatic by their employers.
This bias has significant implications for how people progress in the workplace.
Gender and beauty bias
Does the effect of beauty bias differ for men and women? The surprising answer is yes, but not in the way you might expect.
“Men [in the workplace] are more disadvantaged by bad looks than women,” states Daniel (pictured below). “The difference between good-looking men and bad-looking men’s pay is greater than it is between good-looking women and bad-looking women’s pay.”
Most research on attractiveness bias finds a larger beauty premium for men than women. A recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study highlights how men deemed less attractive earn 9% less than the male average per hour, while their attractive counterparts earn 5% more. On the other hand, attractive women earn only 4% above the female average, while women deemed less attractive earn 4% less than average.
When talking about beauty bias, it’s important to understand how conventional attractiveness can be measured.
Tatyana Deryugina (pictured left), associate professor in the Department of Finance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, emphasizes how the beauty premium is dependent on different variables.
“If you define attractiveness as symmetrical facial features, for example, then men benefit [from beauty bias] at least as much as women, if not more,” she explains. “If you incorporate weight, however, there is evidence that women face a larger penalty in the workplace than men.”
Women are 16 times more likely than men to face discrimination in the workplace for their weight—including pay discrimination. Suyong Song (pictured below), associate professor of economics and finance at the Tippie College of Business, recently conducted a deep machine learning study that emphasized how body shape directly correlates to income.
“We used data through the machine learning technique and found that body features that impacted salary differed across gender,” Suyong says. “For men, we found height was a significant feature, whereas weight was the main driver for female subjects.”
The research discovered that women who earn $70,000 of family income receive $934 less for every unit increase in obesity (converted in BMI).
Weight is not the only source of attractiveness bias that women face. Tomas Chamorro, organizational psychologist and chair of Business Psychology at UCL, highlights how attractive women are more likely to be objectified than attractive men.
“Everyone experiences pressure to conform to certain social standards, norms, or etiquette, but all societies still show a sexist or gender bias whereby women are judged more [than men] for how they look, including what they wear,” he says.
Race and beauty bias
As well as facial features, weight, and clothing choices, a person’s race can also have a significant influence on how beauty bias affects them.
According to Tomas, people are more likely to find others attractive when they are part of a majority group or part of their own group.
Since the corporate environment largely conforms to white Western beauty standards, where norms of success are tied to what is white and male, women of color (WOC) are particularly disadvantaged. Right now, only 1.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women of color.
One example of this bias is the workplace discrimination that Black women regularly face for their natural hair. A recent study highlights how Black women with natural hair are more likely to be seen as unprofessional by prospective (white) employers and are therefore less likely to be recommended for job interviews.
This is backed up by MBA graduate and business development expert, Bonnie Kamona, whose tweet went viral when she highlighted how a Google search for ‘unprofessional hairstyles’ came up with pictures of Black women with natural hair.
Colorism—discrimination based on skin color—can also play into workplace beauty bias, notes Dr. Matthew S. Harrison (pictured below), clinical assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Georgia.
Matthew’s research shows that lighter-skinned applicants are disproportionately favored over their darker-skinned competitors.
“We live in a society where there is not only a general bias towards White skin and against Black skin, but one where that bias is much more specific—to where there is general favorability towards lighter skin and against darker skin,” he says.
Matthew explains how dark-skinned women of color are in a “triple-jeopardy situation” when it comes to discrimination; for being a woman, for being Black, and for being dark-skinned.
Therefore, Matthew highlights the importance of including skin tone bias in conversations on hiring discrimination, as only focusing on race does not account for the potential for skin tone variations.
Overcoming beauty bias
Since beauty bias has such a significant impact on the career ladder, from the hiring process to promotions to pay, tackling it will be an essential part of creating an equitable workplace. Technological interventions could be part of the solution.
Tomas from UCL (pictured below) thinks using algorithms during hiring could reduce interference from human bias.
Tomas Chamorro / ©TED@NYC_RL5D6984_1920. This image was used under this license.
“To this date, no AI has the ability to actually find others attractive in the way humans do (in the sense that it clouds their judgment),” he explains. “We should reduce, if not eliminate, human intuition from the judging and decision-making process by using data, science-based assessments, and AI, rather than prejudiced humans.”
However, technology could equally exacerbate attractiveness bias. For instance, many senior executives in technology and HR worry that modern social media hiring tools, like TikTok Resumes, will exacerbate beauty bias in the workplace.
Instead of relying on tech, Tatyana suggests minimizing attractiveness bias by delaying facial contact to as late a stage as possible in the recruitment process. By educating recruiting managers, she believes that they can then come up with objective criteria to compare against a candidate’s individual performance.
It remains to be seen whether these measures can eliminate beauty bias at work. Daniel remains unconvinced.
“I’m somewhat pessimistic about things getting better,” he concludes.
“Other than trying to educate people that beauty doesn’t matter very much, the only other thing we can do is initiate legislation that would require companies not to discriminate. It’s really hard to enforce and I’m not in favor of it. In other words, this would be affirmative action for the ugly.”
Although the attractiveness bias may seem superficial, there are evidently more sinister, structural issues at stake.
Beauty may be only skin-deep, but once you begin to peel back the layers of some biases, it’s clear that beauty bias is closely tied to issues of racial and gender discrimination. However, by confronting the issue head-on, training staff, and leveraging tech, we may be able to start deconstructing it.
Next read: The Limitations For Women In The Workplace
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