Workplace Discrimination: Beauty Can be a Beast at Work

discrimination-gender-beauty-studyIt's hard to feel sorry for pretty girls, since numerous workplace discrimination studies have been done that show they have an edge when it comes to getting hired, promoted, elected and evaluated. But there are two areas in which they are at a distinct disadvantage: one is in fields that are traditionally considered to be masculine, and the other is when an insecure and/or jealous wife is involved.

A new study released in the Journal of Social Psychology reveals that attractive women are discriminated against when applying for jobs that many people consider to be more testosterone-infused, such as director of finance, mechanical engineer, prison guard, tow-truck driver, construction worker and hardware salesperson.

The manly job syndrome

"In these professions being attractive was highly detrimental to women," said Researcher Professor Stefanie Johnson of the University of Colorado Denver Business School. "In every other job, attractive women were preferred. This wasn't the case with men, which shows there is still a double standard when it comes to gender."

The study determined this by giving participants a list of job titles and photos of applicants. They were then asked to determine which applicants would be suitable for each position. There was a stack of 55 male and 55 female photos to chose from. They frequently ruled out good looking women for positions considered to be more masculine, but attractive men were not subjected to same discrimination.

"One could argue that, under certain conditions, physical appearance may be a legitimate basis for hiring," Johnson said. "In jobs involving face-to-face client contact, such as sales, more physically attractive applicants could conceivably perform better than those who are less attractive. However it is important that physical attractiveness is weighed equally for men and women to avoid discrimination against women."

This is where employment services such as Spirited Sales come into play. They basically focus on placing former cheerleaders in pharmaceutical sales positions, and have recently expanded to include former student body officers and athletes. Their website states they have "a database of thousands of self-confident, outgoing, responsible and enthusiastic young men and women from around the United States." Looks are not mentioned, but it's assumed that you don't often see an unattractive cheerleader, either male or female.

The jealous wife syndrome

However, there's another area where attractive women are often discriminated against and attractive men are not: That's in positions where the female will be working closely, or perhaps even living with, a married man. These include jobs such as personal assistant, assistant manager, nanny and au pair.

"I'm not jealous, but I'm not stupid either," says Charlotte, a San Diego executive who prefers not to use her real name in an effort to keep from offending her husband's current assistant. "You're just asking for trouble if there's a beautiful woman in your husband's life, spending more time with him than you do and attending to all his personal needs. The same thing goes for our nannies. It's understood that the gorgeous Swedish girl is not going to be living under our roof with us."

Charlotte's husband supports her in this, "I love my wife, and I don't need the distraction a beautiful assistant or nanny would cause both of us," he says. "It's just not the same with a handsome guy."

In fact, there's a growing demand for male live-in child care workers, and looks don't seem to be an issue with them, according to Lee Rappaport, childcare coordinator with Cultural Care Au Pairs. "Those families who want male au pairs have specific reasons -- maybe it's a single mom with sons, or families with athletic children -- and they never mention looks," she says. "On the other hand, many of those families who want female au pairs do have specific appearance preferences."

Preferring less attractive females in these positions may be understandable, but that doesn't make it fair or easier to swallow, especially for the attractive women being passed over for the jobs. "My boss flat out told me that I wouldn't be receiving the promotion we both knew I deserved, because his wife had been in the office, met me, and told him she didn't want him working closely with me," says a woman we'll call Lisa, who is still working for the same company. "We both agreed that if I wanted to get ahead, I should transfer to another department, so I did."

Beauty is as beauty doesn't

In a recent article titled "The Beauty Advantage," Newsweek surveyed some 202 corporate hiring managers and 964 members of the public to find out how looking good affects everything from hiring to office politics and promotions. The results are astounding and prove Johnson's findings that beauty is no longer just skin deep but a double-edged sword that can help or hinder your career depending on how it is used -- a hindrance that researchers have coined, the "beauty is beastly" effect.

Here are the findings from the Newsweek study, in all their beautiful glory:

  • Fifty-seven percent of hiring managers said that "qualified but unattractive candidates are likely to have a harder time landing a job."
  • Half of hiring managers advised spending as much time and money on making sure they look attractive as on perfecting a resume.
  • Sixty-one percent of hiring managers ( most of them men) said it would be an advantage for a woman to wear clothing showing off her figure at work.
  • Newsweek also asked the hiring managers to rank the top nine character traits they sought in an employee in order of importance, appearance came in third, right behind experience (No. 1) and confidence ( No. 2).

What's a girl to do?

"In general, American law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, religion, age and disability, but not appearance," says Dr. Deborah L. Rhode in her book 'The Beauty Bias -- The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law.' "Appearance discrimination is deeply rooted and widely practiced, and there are obvious limits to how much the law can affect it. But the same has been true for other forms of discrimination and consumer fraud, and the last half century leaves no doubt that legal prohibitions can help reduce, remedy, and raise awareness of injustice."

Want to add your own two cents to the subject live on the air? Lisa Johnson Mandell and Janet Powers of Diva Toolbox will be discussing this article on their radio show Work It, Girl! Thursday, August 12 at 7:30 am PST, 10:30 am EST. Comments are welcome at (347) 426-3398. Listen to the show any time at

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