Ending the Beauty Bias

In the mirrorBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

In the past, studies have revealed that those with more symmetrical faces are perceived to be more attractive and those considered beautiful or handsome are seen as intelligent and good. Those of course, are just general perceptions, but what happens when your physical appearance actually influences how competent others believe you to be at your job?

A recent controversial study paid for by Procter & Gamble (a manufacturer of popular makeup brands, a fact that should not be overlooked) revealed that wearing makeup increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence, and her trustworthiness.

The study featured 25 female subjects, aged 20 to 50, who were white, African-American, and Hispanic. Each was photographed barefaced and in three looks that researchers called natural, professional, and glamorous. One hundred forty-nine adults (including 61 men) judged the pictures for enough time to make a snap judgment. An additional 119 adults (including 30 men) were given unlimited time to look at the same faces. The participants judged women made up in varying “intensities of luminance contrast,” which means how much their eyes and lips stood out compared to their skin. The results revealed that participants viewed those wearing makeup as more competent than barefaced women, whether they had a quick glance or a longer inspection.

It seems our youth and beauty obsessed culture has reached an all-time low if judgments about attractiveness are spilling over into judgments about competence. But according to Marjorie Jolles, assistant professor of Roosevelt University’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program, this has always been the case.

Minds or Bodies?

According to a NEWSWEEK study that surveyed 202 corporate hiring managers, 57 percent revealed that qualified but unattractive candidates are likely to have a harder time landing a job and more than half of managers surveyed advised spending as much time and money on “making sure they look attractive” as on perfecting a résumé. Sixty-one percent of managers (the majority of which were men) also said it would be advantageous for a woman to wear form-fitting clothing at work. When asked to rank employee attributes in order of importance, managers placed looks above education. Of the nine character traits listed, looks came in third below experience (No. 1) and confidence (No. 2), but above “where a candidate went to school” (No. 4).  One New York recruiter who wanted to remain anonymous said, “This is the new reality of the job market. It’s better to be average and good-looking than brilliant and unattractive.”

If you’re under the impression that this is an issue that will only affect young women in the early stages of their career, think again. A recent profile of 55-year-old Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, began with a critique of her footwear, continued on with a list of her favorite clothing labels, and concluded with the admission that the “most encouraging thing of all” was the fact that Lagarde doesn’t have a personal stylist. No, this was not in a fashion magazine; it originally appeared in The Financial Times. This approach would never be taken when writing about a high profile man for a financial periodical and to add insult to injury, the profile was written by a woman. So, how do we overcome this beauty bias if it’s also being perpetrated by women?

Ever since women entered the workforce in large numbers in the 20th century, they were held to a certain aesthetic and according to Jolles, to this day, we’re still struggling with the old mind/body dualism where men, primarily those who are white, heterosexual, and middle class, are the mind and women are the body. Because women are relegated to the body, it’s no surprise it’s the domain many of us invest in. After all, there’s a reason Sarah Palin paid her makeup artist more than any member of her staff in her run for the vice presidency.

“There’s no question that women have more power today than ever before, but social mechanisms still entrap them,” Jolles said. “American women occupy a rich cultural spot, one where freedom and constraints constantly co-exist. Take fashion, for example. It’s neither liberating nor oppressive; it’s both. Fashion enables a great deal of choice, but it’s limited. The Procter & Gamble study seems to suggest that women can use their sex appeal to get ahead, but not all bodies are sexually appealing to mainstream society.”

Similarly, one of the biggest problems with the Procter & Gamble study is that not all women feel more confident in makeup and if their competence and job performance is now being based on their appearance, some women may be forced to comply with something that feels completely unnatural to them. As Jolles pointed out, in women’s style there’s the common experience of “that’s so you,” but women can also have the experience of “that’s so not you.” Feeling obligated to wear makeup can be alienating and deciding to deviate from the norm by not wearing it can unfairly single you out.

There is no equivalent of this beauty bias for men. Once while speaking to other female academics, Jolles realized that it’s quite the opposite. In academia especially, if a male professor is particularly unkempt, disheveled, and altogether scattered, this for some reason suggests he’s brilliant. If, on the other hand, a female professor was missing papers and had soup stains on her cardigan, it would be a totally different story.

“The body says too much for women and it doesn’t say as much for men. An ‘ugly,’ out of shape, brilliant woman would be really difficult for most people to compute,” Jolles said.

The Million Dollar Question

How to overcome the beauty bias is the million dollar question. According to Jolles, one way to combat it is to introduce more aesthetic diversity by getting different types of people in positions of power. Theoretically, an aesthetically diverse workforce would lead to more political diversity where more ideologies are permitted. There is a Catch 22, however. Getting to the top usually requires that a person submit to the company culture, which can also mean falling in line with the aesthetics considered to be the norm.

But what if you want to push back against the beauty bias? What if you believe that hyper femininity shouldn’t be a necessity to succeed in the workplace or be seen as the competent woman you are? Throwing your hands up and choosing not to participate may not be the best strategy. This doesn’t mean that the beauty bias isn’t something that warrants anger, but from a strategic standpoint, norms don’t get changed by ignoring them, but by insisting they’re more expansive.

No workplace is free of norms and different workplaces have different standards. But if you find these norms oppressive, you’ll have to challenge them subtlety and thoughtfully by exploiting weak links.

For example, Jolles has a friend who is a female prosecutor and at her firm, women are required to wear skirts and dresses. Women can wear something as ridiculous to work as a long, flowing skirt and flip flops, but a tailored pantsuit would be out of the question. As a way of pushing back, Jolles would recommend showing up in a sundress and flip flops. “The best course of action is political agitation. By showing up in a sundress and flip flops you could show the limitations of the company culture by engaging with it,” Jolles said. Of course, political agitation may not necessarily be the best strategy for keeping your job.

Fighting Looks Discrimination

Deborah Rhode, a Stanford law professor and author of the book, The Beauty Bias, is actually proposing a legal regime in which discrimination on the basis of looks is as serious as discrimination based on gender or race. According to Rhode, discrimination against unattractive women and short men is as widespread as bias based on race, sex, age, ethnicity, religion, and disability. Her research also revealed that the more unattractive you are in America, the more likely you are to receive a longer prison sentence, a lower damage award, a lower salary, and poorer performance reviews.

There are already laws against appearance discrimination in Michigan and six other locales and according to Rhode, this hasn’t resulted in an explosion of frivolous lawsuits. In each jurisdiction, the new laws have generated between zero and nine cases annually and in Michigan, about 30 looks-discrimination suits are filed per year, with only one being litigated annually. Rhodes believes the unworthy cases will be weeded out by the cost and burden of litigation.

When the culture begins to get serious about discriminating based on looks, it will have an impact on discrimination based on gender and race. Jolles makes an important point: discrimination based on gender and race is discriminating based on looks. Cultural ideologies require that women be attractive based on heteronormative standards and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be successful if your look violates unspoken codes of the workplace.

If you want to take Jolles’ advice and push back in a strategic way, you have to remember that there can be negative consequences. These are challenging economic times and if being a “political agitator” puts you at risk of losing your job, you’ll have to decide if it’s that important to you.

“There’s no right path for every woman, it’s just a matter of deciding how much risk you’re willing to take and what you can do to feel more like yourself in the workplace,” Jolles said. “Chances are you’ll find that pushing back isn’t easy, but it’s almost always worth it.”