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The “beauty is beastly” effect

Friday, September 20, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

perceptionAre you among those who worry about whether “beautiful people” are judged too harshly in our society? That’s what we thought…

Some believe society has evolved to the point that beautiful people are no longer penalized for being beautiful. Others think “What? Beautiful people are penalized for being beautiful? Oh, please.” Thankfully, academics in search of tenure continue to do their research exploring dynamics we did not even know existed.

This post will be a little different from what we typically do here. Instead of looking at a single study, we’re going to give you a summation of what researchers have recently found with regard to the “beauty is beastly” effect. You are likely familiar with the “what is beautiful is good” effect. This is the idea that we assume positive things about people who are attractive. We’ve written about it here, in fact and, more than once. There is also, however, the “beauty is beastly” effect. The idea was originally proposed in 1979 as a way to explain how attractive women were not likely to be considered for masculine-stereotyped positions in the workplace. More than 30 years ago, those authors concluded:

As predicted, attractiveness consistently proved to be an advantage for men but was an advantage for women only when seeking a non-managerial position.”

In essence, it seems that hiring decisions (generally made by men) result in attractive women being welcome in the workplace, but not as peers of the managers. Has the way we perceive women changed in the past three decades? There are some indications that it has since researchers have had difficulty replicating the “beauty is beastly” effect in workplace studies. But, there is also evidence of a disparate effect of attractiveness for male and female job applicants.

And while “what is beautiful is good” is believed to continue to be a factor in multiple lawsuit outcomes, beauty is not always a positive thing in the minds of jurors. In domestic violence litigation, for example, if you are an attractive woman charged with an assault on your spouse, you are more likely to be found guilty. So we thought we’d take a look at some of the studies in search of the “beauty is beastly” effect and see what they say.

Braun, Peus & Frey (2012) looked at women and men and their leadership styles. Specifically, they examined both transactional and transformational leadership styles. (As defined by these researchers, transactional leadership focuses on task completion [including rewards and punishments for meeting goals]. Transformational leadership focuses more on stimulating critical thinking, motivating people, supporting the personal growth of followers, and being a role model. Currently, the transformational approach is most dominant in the leadership literature.) The researchers examined how the attractiveness of male and female leaders interacted with their leadership style.

When leaders were transactional, there was no difference in the loyalty of followers regardless of whether the leader was attractive or not attractive. This was true for both female and male leaders. It is a performance-measured management style, and appearances were not influential.

However, when leaders were transformational, followers “showed lower levels of trust and loyalty toward attractive than unattractive female leaders”. In other words, for female transactional leaders, beauty is beastly even in 2012.

You may wonder how followers react differently to attractive and unattractive male transformational leaders. They don’t. It doesn’t make a difference if your male transformational leader is attractive or unattractive. It’s only women who are vulnerable to stereotypical evaluations based on their appearance.

Another study by Johnson, Podratz, Dipboye & Gibbons (2010) examined hiring biases based on the applicant’s attractiveness. They asked study participants to match photos of men and women (both attractive and unattractive) with job descriptions for which they thought the pictured applicant would be a good fit. In this study too, attractive men got all sorts of job matches. But, if the job was one seen as male-dominated and where appearance was deemed unimportant, attractive women simply were not seen as suitable for the position. This was for job titles like manager of research and development, director of finance, mechanical engineer, director of security, hardware salesperson, prison guard, truck driver, or construction supervisor.

If you were an attractive woman, you tended to be sorted into jobs like receptionist or secretary. (Yes, this research was done just a few years ago.)

Another study published on SSRN (Ruffle & Shtudiner, 2010) examined call-back rates from CVs with photos of attractive or plain male and female candidates, or with no photo at all. What they found was unexpected: attractive male candidates got lots of callbacks.

But, female applicants with no photo at all got the most callbacks among the women!

So you may be thinking, this is all research based on undergraduate students perceptions. Surely, adults with work experience have more sense than to stereotype solely based on appearance. Take a look at the results of a 2010 Newsweek survey of “202 hiring managers and 964 members of the public”. The survey participants say looks matter at work and looks matter more for women.

In fact, survey participants (which included those 202 hiring managers) said your looks rank above education and your sense of humor when it comes to being hired.

So, have things changed in the last 30 years? Of course they have. But in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Stereotypes about women are deeply ingrained in our society. Attractive women are apparently seen as decorative and thus most suited for jobs like receptionist and secretary.

So to our female attorney clients who continue to struggle with how to dress for court appearances, your sense of the fact you will be judged is accurate. We are working on some general principles about attire to consider as you present yourself in the courtroom as a female professional in a male-dominated profession. Until then, is beauty beastly? It certainly can be. Even in 2013. But, apparently, only for women.

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 für Psychologie, 220 (2), 98-108 DOI: 10.1027/2151-2604/a000101

Johnson SK, Podratz KE, Dipboye RL, & Gibbons E (2010). Physical attractiveness biases in ratings of employment suitability: tracking down the “beauty is beastly” effect. The Journal of Social Psychology, 150 (3), 301-18 PMID: 20575336

Ruffle, Bradley J., & Shtudiner, Ze’ev (2010). Are Good-Looking People More Employable? SSRN.


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