What's Beautiful is Good. Or Isn't It?

My beau’s daughter, an accomplished banker in her 20’s, is not pretty—she’s drop dead gorgeous. I’m not kidding—she really looks like the 3D photoshopped version of a Vogue model. Her physical attractiveness is such that people consistently refer to her as “Barbie.” What’s cute is that her boyfriend is equally attractive, so my daughter (accurately) calls them Barbie and Ken!

Attractiveness Bias

My guess is that, if given the option, everyone would love to be that good-looking, because we all intuitively know that attractive people get “perks” in life that the rest of us—mere mortals—don’t.

But does that also apply to professional success? I mean, we don’t need scientists to tell us that

  • attractive people have more dates than less attractive people [*1]

  • people who have dated more attractive individuals report being more satisfied with their dates [*2,*3]

  • there exists a “what is beautiful is good” stereotype [*4]

  • good-looking people are perceived to possess a variety of positive personality attributions [*5]

  • beautiful people, especially women, are able to attract wealthier partners (think Hefner or Trump)

  • attractiveness can also influence judgement about the seriousness of committed crimes, [*6] and attractive individuals pay lower bail. [*7]

We kind’a know that. (Okay, maybe you didn't know all of them, but now you do.) But again, does that also apply to professional success?

Well—it does.

Let me give you some scientific evidence that shows our intuition is right: in business, as in life, beautiful is better.

But then I’ll give you some bad news (that will surprise most men and some women): that while being handsome is great for career men, it’s not necessarily so for career women.

Looks and Success are Related

There is plenty of evidence linking physical appearance to occupational and economic success and benefits.

  • Attractive individuals are more likely to be hired, taller men earn more, and the facial appearance of candidates has been linked to real election outcomes [*8]. In fact, there is evidence that elections can be predicted by individuals voting based on facial shape alone, using presidential and prime ministerial elections from several nations. [*9]

  • Height matters: people attribute more positive traits to those who are tall. [*10] This applies to both genders and at all levels: in a recent study, tall women were considered more intelligent, ambitious, assertive, and affluent [*11], and between 1900 and 2008, the tallest candidate won the presidency of the United States of America 81% of the time.

  • In mock interviews, attractive people are more likely to be hired than less attractive individuals. And this holds true for real interviews! [*12]

  • Physical attractiveness has been shown to influence not only hiring, but also performance appraisals, salary determinations, an even promotions [*13]

Perhaps you’re thinking that it makes sense for companies to hire good-looking employees for certain occupations, such as salesperson, where the more attractive reps would be better liked by customers and would therefore have better results. Everything else being equal, this is true—however, there’s plenty of evidence that the physical attractiveness bias influences the employment process even for positions that are not high-exposure positions.[*14]

The Beauty is Beastly Effect

An enlightening 2010 study published in the International Journal of Management, where participants reviewed resumes and digitally-altered photographs of attractive and unattractive men and women, supported the “what’s beautiful is good” effect for male applicants and the “beauty is beastly” effect for female applicants: all else being equal, it was the attractive men and the unattractive women who were evaluated as being more qualified, evaluated as more likely to be hired, and offered a higher salary. [*15]

One of the most troublesome characteristics of this “beauty is beastly” effect, as scientists have called it, is that it’s typically associated with gender-stereotyped jobs, such as when women apply to positions typically held by men. [*16]

“Positions typically help by men,” of course, include all leadership positions.

An ample body of experimental research has demonstrated how the “beauty is beastly” effect negatively impacts competent and ambitious women’s careers. [*17]

  • Attractiveness has negative consequences for women when they apply for leadership positions [*18]

  • Female as compared to male leaders are devalued regarding their performance, leadership competence, and "hireability" when they are highly attractive [*19]


Now back to “Banker Barbie.” Yes, she is a banker, which is a stereotypically male occupation. She recently applied for a managerial position (again, leadership positions are stereotypically male) at the branch where she has already been assistant manager and Employee of the Year, and where her fast, effective, decisive and brave actions were instrumental in helping the police apprehend a robber who recently stole money from her branch.

Well, she lost the managerial position to a male applicant from a different branch.

“Banker Barbie’s” case reminded me of a study conducted in 2012 by Zenger Folkman, the authority in strengths-based leadership development. I quote the results of this study in my book Chip In: How Men Can Support Women Who Lean In (In Press) when discussing the reasons why women are severely underrepresented in leadership positions.

After studying a large sample of individuals (over 7,000), Zenger Folkman concluded that, “Organizations go outside to recruit effective leaders when in many cases they may well have internal people who could rise to fill the position that is vacant.” [*20] (But that’s another story.)

The fact is that I have not asked her about this matter, she doesn't know I'm writing this post, I have no reason not to believe that the chosen male candidate will do a good job, and I don’t have enough information to understand or issue an informed opinion about the decision not to promote this particular woman in this particular instance. However, what I know about gender bias in the workplace and about the “beauty is beastly” effect, make me wonder.

Really wonder.

I also wonder, what can I do to help more people

  • get informed about the double standards that apply to men and women in the workplace

  • quit judging women’s competence by our looks

  • quit making women's appearance an issue when it's not (like when Donald Trump said about Carly Fiorina, "Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?")

One thing I can do is keep writing posts like this. And asking readers like you to add their comments (below) and please share this knowledge with others!

Thank you.

* * *

[*1] Riggio, R. & Woll, S. (1984). The role of non-verbal and physical attractiveness in the selection of dating partners. J. Soc. Pers. Relat. 1, 347–357.

[*2] Berscheid, E., Dion, K., Walster, E. & Walster, G. W. (1971). Physical attractiveness and dating choice: a test of the matching hypothesis. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 7, 173–189.

[*3] Walster, E., Aronson, V., Abrahams, D. & Rottman, L. (1966). Importance of physical attractiveness in dating behaviour. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 4, 508–516.

[*4] Dion, K., Berscheid, E. & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 24, 285–290.

[*5] Little. A. , Jones, B. & DeBruine, L. (2011). Facial attractiveness: evolutionary based research. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 366, 1638–1659.

[*6] Sigall, H. & Ostrove, N. (1975). Beautiful but dangerous: effects of offender attractiveness and nature of the crime on juridical judgement. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 31, 410–414.

[*7] Downs, A. C. & Lyons, P. M. 1991 Natural observations of the links between attractiveness and initial legal judgments. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 17, 541–547.

[*8] Little, A. (2012) Evolution, Appearance, and Occupational Success. Evol. Psychol. 10, 782-801.

[*9] Little, A. C., Burriss, R. P., Jones, B. C. & Roberts, S. C. (2007). Facial appearance affects voting decisions. Evol. and Human Behav. 28, 18-27.

[*10] Jackson, L. A. & Ervin, K. S. (1992). Height stereotypes of women and men: The liabilities of shortness for both sexes. J. Soc. Soc. Psychol. 132, 433-445.

[*11] Chu, S. & Geary, K. (2005). Physical stature influences character perception in women. Pers. and Indiv. Diff. 38, 1927-1934.

[*12] Cash, T. F. & Kilcullen, R. N. (1985) The aye of the beholder: susceptibility to sexism and beautyism in the evaluation of managerial applicants. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 15, 591–605.

[*13, *14, *15, *17, *18] Shahani-Denning, C., Dudhat, P., Tevet, T. & Andreoli, N. (2010). Effect of Physical Attractiveness on Selection Decisions in India and the United States . Int. J. of Mgmt. 27, 37-51.

[*16, *19] Braun, S., Peus, C., & Frey, D. (2012). Is beauty beastly? gender-specific effects of leader attractiveness and leadership style on followers' trust and loyalty. Zeitschrift Fur Psychologie, 220(2), 98-108.

[*20] Zenger & Folkman (2012). A study in leadership: women do it better than men. www.zengerfolkman.com

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