‘Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful’—when beauty is bad for you
Dr Raj Persaud and Dr Peter Bruggen examine the latest research exploring whether assumptions based on appearance lead to discrimination of attractive women
Researchers based at the University of Colorado and the Illinois Institute of Technology have just published a study which examines what they describe as a ‘subtle form of sex discrimination’, occurring when attractive women are discriminated against in job interviews, because they are pretty.
This is part of a wider phenomenon by which women are more likely to attract stereotyping about their personality and job skills, according to their looks.
The study was partly inspired by a now infamous incident when in April 2012, Samantha Brick, a writer, producer and freelance journalist, published a column in The Daily Mail newspaper titled, ‘‘There are downsides to looking this pretty: Why Women Hate Me for Being Beautiful.’’ The subsequent backlash and media criticism reflected the widespread opinion that the massive beneﬁts of physical attractiveness probably far outweigh any possible disadvantages.
The authors of this new study, Stefanie Johnson, Traci Sitzmann and Anh Thuy Nguyen, point out that physically attractive women are probably particularly discriminated against when applying for jobs seen as more masculine – this would include jobs in construction, for example, as opposed to, perhaps, working as a receptionist.
This phenomenon is known within academic psychology as the ‘beauty is beastly’ effect, and reflects a strong tendency to stereotype women according to their looks. This involves often unconscious yet powerful assumptions about what work women will be good at, or not, based solely on appearance.
The authors of this new study quote examples of where women who violate their gender roles in the workplace are characterised as the opposite of the female nurturer—as the ‘quintessential ‘bitch’’ who is not at all concerned for others, but only about herself. For example, studies have shown that successful female managers are perceived as abrasive, untrustworthy, selﬁsh, pushy, bitter, quarrelsome, deceitful, and devious.
This new study titled ‘Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful: Acknowledging appearance mitigates the ‘‘beauty is beastly’’ effect’ involved a series of experiments setting up a mock job selection where participants were told that they would be evaluating four ﬁnalists for a job in construction. This industry was picked as representing a more ‘masculine’ type of job in which physical attractiveness is theoretically unimportant. The authors of the study contend that being a more attractive woman in this situation should elicit the infamous ‘beauty is beastly’ effect.
The experiment investigated whether they were tactics that women could adopt when applying for jobs which could help overcome stereotyping they might face over appearance and gender.
One strategy in this predicament is to find a way to openly ‘acknowledge’ what the interviewer might be thinking.
In a previous experiment, which partly inspired the current study, mock-job interviews were set up in which an interviewee was in a wheelchair, and either acknowledged or did not acknowledge his stigma. ‘Acknowledgement’ as a tactic in this case took the form of the statement, ‘‘When people meet me, one of the ﬁrst things that they notice is that I use a wheelchair.’’
The experiment found stigmatised individuals were more likely to be hired when they acknowledged their disability.
‘Acknowledgement’ as a tactic in the current experiment was achieved by altering the response to a question regarding why the applicant should be hired. One group of applicants ‘acknowledged’ their physical appearance by saying in the application, ‘I know that I don’t look like your typical construction worker, but…’. Elsewhere in the application another statement was inserted to the effect: ‘I know that there are not a lot of women in this industry, but…’.
The results of the experiment were that the physically attractive applicant performed signiﬁcantly better when she acknowledged either her appearance, or sex, compared to when she did not. The physically unattractive applicant performed signiﬁcantly worse when she acknowledged her appearance, yet there was no effect of acknowledging her sex.
One theory is that acknowledging one’s appearance and sex interrupts automatic stereotyping—it gives the female applicant a chance to point out that she does have the ability to do the job and allows the perceiver to make a more substantive evaluation of the job candidate.
The study found that when an attractive female applicant acknowledged her appearance, she was perceived as higher in masculine traits required to succeed in construction. Furthermore, she was rated as lower in ‘bitch like’ traits associated with successful women in a male world, than when she did not acknowledge her appearance.
It is of particular significance perhaps that the ‘acknowledgement’ tactic reduced discrimination against attractive women among raters high in hostile sexism.
This is particularly important as ‘hostile sexism’ is not uncommon and relates to resentful attitudes toward women, such as seeing them as competitive, manipulative, devious, and threatening to men. As a result ‘hostile sexism’ evokes particularly negative reactions when women violate their gender role, such as when women pursue careers outside the home. If the acknowledgement strategy was a significant antidote to ‘hostile sexism’, then this is a vital finding.
Another key result from the study, published in the academic journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, is that the unattractive applicant was rated signiﬁcantly worse in terms of suitability for the job, when she acknowledged her appearance.
This shows that ‘acknowledgement’ as a strategy has to be used skilfully, for example, a previous study found that acknowledging obesity resulted in more negative ratings in an employment context, and another study found that acknowledging race resulted in more negative evaluations of Barack Obama in the 2008 election, among highly prejudiced individuals.
The authors of the current study argue that the beneﬁts of acknowledging a stigma are enhanced when acknowledgment occurs early in the social interaction, and when it is accompanied by hard information that contradicts the stereotype in question.
The ‘acknowledgment’ strategy, in this study, seems to result in more negative repercussions if one is not as physically attractive as she believes.
The authors conclude that individuals should possess accurate self-perceptions (for example about appearance) before using acknowledgment to reduce the negative effect of stigmas.
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast Editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a new free to download app entitled ‘Raj Persaud in Conversation’ contains many interviews with mental health experts from around the world and a cutting edge information on the latest research findings in psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience: play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.rajpersaud.android.rajpersaud