Beauty is Pain: An Overlooked Discrimination

As it is National Disability Awareness month; I recently presented on bias-free interviewing at my Company’s Operations Conference. In addition to going over the legal aspects of discrimination; we talked extensively about how to interview and how to avoid natural biases. It got me thinking about another kind of discrimination that’s common in the workplace; though one would hardly call it a ‘disability:’  the beauty bias.

I had always assumed that there were hiring managers that would tend to hire people who are more attractive, since we all hear statistics that back up that assertion; such as how taller men and women make more money than their shorter counter-parts (over $750/inch over 5’6”!).  Or who can forget the famous Kelly Girls of times past?  ‘Beautiful’ was unabashedly encouraged to apply; not only did it help them catch a job…. But a husband, too!  Needless to say, in my role as Head of Corporate HR; I strive to ensure we have an inclusive workplace; as free from prejudice as possible.

That said, when it comes to the “beauty bias?” I do think attractive men are much more likely to get hired by other men and women; but attractive women are likely to struggle when the hiring manager is a woman or when the position is considered “masculine” in nature.

“Masculine” Jobs

A study by Ken Podratz, of Rice University, found that while average-looking and attractive men were picked more often for jobs such as switchboard operator or tow-truck driver; beautiful women lost these same positions to less attractive females. In some jobs, an employer’s gender was a factor: Men were eager to place female beauties in jobs that emphasize appearance or interpersonal contact; like receptionists, secretaries, or public relations professionals.  However, female employers were less willing to do so.  When it came to “male-oriented” jobs or jobs in which appearance wasn’t considered important; both men and women opted for the less attractive women.

The reason? “Physical attractiveness is correlated with perceived femininity in women,” says Podratz. “If a highly attractive female applies for a hypermasculine job such as truck driver or security guard; she is likely to be seen as less capable of meeting the physical demands of the job.” These results “open up a can of worms,” says Podratz, who, in this study, asked 66 subjects to consider 204 headshots, all rated for attractiveness, as candidates for jobs.   Looks like there’s a whole new reason for women to say, “Don’t hate [on] me because I’m beautiful.”

Doubly so if she happens to be working for a Queen Bee.

Queen Bee Syndrome

Question:  How many women were in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet?
Answer: One (and she was no looker!).

The Queen Bee” syndrome was first defined by G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayaratne, and C. Tavris in 1973. It describes a woman in a position of authority who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female.  Women who are considered beautiful by the Queen Bee may suffer even more from her aggression.  They often see other, usually younger, women as competitors and will refuse to help them advance within a company; preferring to mentor a male over a female employee. Some “queen bees” may even actively take steps to hinder another woman’s advancement as they are seen as direct competitors.  And goodness help the beauty that the Queen Bee sees as competition not only in the workplace; but as someone who might detract from her self image.

When it Comes to Beauty; Proof is in the Pudding

Newsweek polled hiring managers about a woman’s level of attractiveness in the work place. Not surprisingly, women in the workplace are often faced with a double bind: they are expected to be sexy but can be punished for being too attractive. Sixty-one percent of the hiring managers that were  surveyed—60 percent of whom were men—said they believe a woman would benefit from wearing clothing that shows off her figure at work. Meanwhile, 47 percent of those same managers said they believe some women are penalized for being too good-looking in the office.  As a whole, women are perceived to benefit more from their looks: 39 percent of managers believe that being “very good-looking” is more of an advantage for women than men, while only 16 percent believe the opposite—that it’s more beneficial to men than to women.

Early into my HR career I ran into this lady in the restroom in the building where we had our Corporate Offices.  She was, by all accounts, gorgeous:  blue, big-eyed, tall, leggy blonde without a trace of discernable body fat.  She was also crying.  When I asked her what was wrong; she explained she had just interviewed for a Sales Management role for her Employer (not my Company, thankfully).  Her sales were higher than the most of her team; and she also had a PhD in Consumer Psychology!  She went on to say that her VP had told her that she’d be better off “without the stress” of management & that she was “made for the Sales floor.”  I did my best to console her; but it got me to thinking:  For her, and probably many others… Beauty Equated to Professional Pain.

Maybe there was a legitimate reason she was denied the promotion she sought that she failed to mention; but I realized being beautiful came with its own set of issues… it wasn’t an automatic pass to Easy Street.  That Sales lady was suffering… even if only in her mind it was because of that long blonde hair, baby blue eyes, and mile long legs.  She was fighting a battle just like the rest of us; and likely still is… except she’s doing it in size 4 Calvin Klein shift dresses and Manolos.  Suddenly my comfortable Nine West heels felt even better than they had moments before.

I came to understand that we, as a society, set up the very situations that create this continued & often overlooked type of discrimination in the workplace.  It’s just as inappropriate to deny a qualified worker employment or advancement opportunities on the basis that they’re “beautiful” as it is to shut out the person in a wheelchair.   And this month, when once again as a Nation we shine a spotlight on discriminatory employment practices; maybe we should all, as Leaders, make a conscious effort to leave the pain that comes with beauty out of the workplace and to the footwear we choose to wear… where it belongs.

Author’s note:  I wrote this piece as part of a collaborative project with Crystal Miller; who was writing an article for MonsterThinking.  The two of us have talked for ages about while there is much said & written about discrimination due to race, religion, disability, and gender in general; the bias for & against beauty is one that’s often overlooked in the world of work.  You can see her article on MonsterThinking.Com, “Beauty at Work:  How Physical Appearance Impacts Job Search & Careers”  here.

Image Credit: GiniMiniGi via stock.xchng