May 29 2013

Beauty Pays...Or Does it Hurt?

Sabrina Schaeffer

Just when I thought we couldn’t talk anymore about “Leaning In,” another article popped up today on The Broad Side -- “How Far Can you ‘Lean In’ if You’re Not Pretty?” – that requires a response.

Feminists have already criticized Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In as elitist and out-of-touch with “real” working women. Now Tracey Thompson is upset that Sandberg – and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! – is pretty, sending the message to women today that getting to the top requires a pretty face.

Thompson complains:

I wish I could tell my daughters something different, and reassure them that talent and character and hard work are all that really matter in life. I wish I could tell my daughters—who are both lovely, by the way—that what really mattered was their own pleasure in their bodies, and their health and well-being, and to disregard all these superficial standards of beauty because they just don’t matter. But if I did, I’d be lying.

(Boy is it sometimes easy to confuse feminism with sexism!)

Certainly there are many studies and books about the impact of beauty on sales, salaries, and success, such as Daniel Hamermesh’s Beauty Pays.

But Thompson should have dug a little deeper because the fact is she can tell her daughters (and I have two, as well) that “talent and character and hard work” still matter. In 2010 economists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel released the results of a study in which they tested how important physical appearance is to being hired. Employers with job openings received two identical resumes – one with a photograph of the applicant and one without. Sometimes the photo was an “attractive” man or woman, while other times it was a “plain” photo.

Bottom line: attractive men benefitted significantly from sending in a photo, while women did not.

The study found “an attractive man needs to send an average of five resumes with a photo to get one interview” while an “ordinary-looking man needs to send 11 resumes with a photo to get a singleinterview.” But the same was not the case for women. Thompson might be interested to know that attractive women “were only half as likely to receive a response as plain women.”

And it’s not surprising why. Left out of Thompson’s analysis is the fact that women make up nearly 50 percent of the workforce. And more often than naught, the researchers found that young, single women are screening resumes – women who don’t want an attractive “competitor” in the office!

Perhaps now we can finally take a break from the “Lean In” debate.

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