For Women, Beauty Isn't Always an Advantage

An artist turns her camera on the cosmetic industry.

It's impossible to talk about the role of beauty in the workplace these days without bringing up the story of Debrahlee Lorenzana. At 33, the Queens, N.Y., mom—"MILF," as the tabs like to call her—is suing Citibank, claiming that, in peep-toe stilettos and fitted turtleneck sweaters, she was fired for simply being "too hot." Now it's come to our (and others') attention, in the weeks since Lorenzana's story hit newsstands, that perhaps the woman is a wee bit media-obsessed. (Has everyone seen the YouTube video?) But whatever you think of her, the fact is that Lorenzana is onto something—and it's far bigger than one plastic-surgery-mad banker fired from a desk job.

Economists have long recognized what's been dubbed the "beauty premium"—the idea that pretty people, whatever their aspirations, tend to do better in most aspects of their lives. We know that handsome men earn 5 percent more than their least-attractive counterparts; that pretty people get more attention from teachers, bosses, and mentors; that even babies stare longer at good-looking faces. A recent NEWSWEEK survey of corporate hiring managers confirmed how many of these assumptions carry over into the workplace—placing the importance of looks below experience but above education when it comes to landing a job.

But however hard men have it at work—and, from a financial perspective, their beauty premium is higher, say economists—women will always face a double bind: pressured to conform to the beauty standards of the day, yet simultaneously condemned for doing so. Recruiters may think women like Lorenzana can get ahead by looking good (61 percent told NEWSWEEK they believe a woman would benefit from showing off her figure—ouch), but nearly half also believe it's possible for a woman to be penalized for being "too good-looking"—and I don't mean just by being lusted after. Attractive women tend to face heightened scrutiny from their female peers, who rate them less competent, less talented, less loyal, and, strangely, less motherly than women from homelier stock. They also face what some have dubbed the "bimbo effect"—viewed by colleagues as less intelligent or competent, their success a function of schmoozing (or worse). In male-dominated fields in particular, pretty women can be seen as too feminine (and thus unfit) for leadership positions—one reason, perhaps, that so few women control Fortune 500 companies or Wall Street firms.

In what's known as the "beauty is beastly" effect, one recent study even found that attractive women are likely discriminated against outright—at least when it comes to hiring. Published in the June issue of the Journal of Social Psychology, the study gave volunteers a list of jobs, along with photos of men and women suitable for those jobs, and then asked them to place the photos with the categories. For jobs with titles like director of security, hardware salesperson, prison guard, and tow-truck driver, attractive women were overlooked, sorted instead into positions like receptionist and secretary. The same was true among more professional categories, like manager of research, director of finance, or mechanical engineer. "In every other kind of job, attractive women were preferred," Stefanie Johnson, the study's coauthor, told Science Daily. "This wasn't the case with men."

Is it any surprise that women face a double standard? Not to this writer. Which is why I've argued for using what you've got—while you've still got it, as women face an entirely new set of challenges as they age. But the reality is that though looks may be undeniably important, they aren't everything, and even the most superficial statistics still leave room for talent. Beauty premium notwithstanding, there are still opportunities for people who aren't runway models—and lots of them.

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