The Beauty Bias: when being pretty equals progress

As the saying goes, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But as much as we try, there’s no denying that how people look is a huge contributor to how they are treated.

For example, have you ever noticed that looks and success often seem to correlate? It turns out there’s a reason why those who fit in with society’s expectations for attractiveness seem to succeed much more than others who may be deemed ‘average looking’, or ‘plain’: it’s because they genuinely do generally experience more prosperity.

The ‘beauty bias’, or lookism, is the idea that someone is privileged because they are pretty, good looking or attractive. It’s not usually something that we talk about much, but it’s out there. Unfortunately, it means that if you don’t fit into society’s standards of beauty, or you’re not considered good looking, you could well miss out on promotions, bonuses, or even getting hired for your dream job.

There’s evidence that proves that attractive people are more likely to succeed in the workplace. In 2019, Forbes reported that above-average beauty translated “into 10% to 15% higher salaries than below-average beauty” and shared that good-looking candidates are more likely to be hired, interviewed or promoted. There’s also proof that “less attractive individuals are more likely to get fired, even though they are also less likely to be hired in the first place.”

This bias starts long before careers begin, too. The same report in Forbes continues: “Studies [show] that physically attractive students tend to obtain higher grades at university, partly because they are deemed more conscientious and intelligent, even when they are not.” Even at school, ‘better-looking’ children are viewed in the same way, and there’s a more general ‘halo effect’ which means good-looking people are judged as being “sociable, healthy, successful, honest, and talented”.

Lookism, racism and sexism

All biases and prejudices feed into one another. Lookism overlaps with racism, sexism and ageism. Janet Mock – American writer, producer, director and trans rights activist – explores this in an article she wrote for Allure in 2017: “‘Pretty’ is most often synonymous with being thin, white, able-bodied, and cis, and the closer you are to those ideals, the more often you will be labelled pretty — and benefit from that prettiness,” she writes. 

She’s right. If any of those identifiers were to change – for example, if you are not thin, or white – it might (sadly) impact how attractive you are by society’s standards.

Mock goes on to add, impactfully: “People with privilege do not want to discuss their privilege — whether it’s privilege derived from whiteness, straightness, cisness. But we must acknowledge our privilege if we are to dismantle these systems and hierarchies. We have to be honest, and I’ll start with myself: I am pretty and I benefit from my looks.”

There’s more to unpack here; but it’s important to understand that where there’s beauty bias, there’s likely to be further discrimination happening, too.

Is it all about biology?

It seems that there may be a biological explanation for all of this, potentially linking to the survival of the human race. Biologically, in the animal kingdom, mates are often chosen on account of their desirable genes, which are passed on to give the species the strongest chance of surviving and thriving. According to 2016 research published by the University of Chicago Institute for Mind and Biology, “attractiveness is a marker of personality, intelligence, trustworthiness, professional competence, or productivity. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that attractive adults are favoured because they are preferred sexual partners.”

Of course, we’re not focused on finding a mate when we’re job hunting or recruiting, but this ancient instinct could go some way to explaining the unconscious bias we harbour as humans and provides a good segue into exploring why recruiters want the best-looking employees to represent their companies. In the same way that animals want their species to flourish, business owners want their organisations to see the same sort of survival and success – and so may give in to assumptions about appearance in the hopes of making that happen.

The sexualisation of employees

In 2020 Slater and Gordon revealed that, during the lockdown, “more than a third (34 per cent) [of female employees] were asked to wear more make-up or do something to their hair, while 27 per cent were asked to dress more provocatively.”

The same research found that “of those who were told to dress more provocatively, 41 per cent said their boss justified the request by saying it could ‘help win business, with the same proportion reporting being told it was important to ‘look nice for the team’. Similarly, 38 per cent said they were told dressing up would be more ‘pleasing to a client’”

While these statistics and revelations are shocking, they do correlate with the presumption that attractive people will get more positive attention and therefore bring in more business and success for the company they represent.

Professor Christopher Warhurst, from the University of Warwick, and Professor Dennis Nickson, from the University of Strathclyde, are employment experts. In a recent article for The Conversation, they write: 

“Companies think that paying greater attention to employees’ appearance will make them more competitive, while public sector organisations think it will make them more liked. As a result, they are all becoming ever more prescriptive in telling employees how they should look, dress and talk.”

This is hugely problematic; not only is lookism an issue in terms of promotions and pay within the world of employment, but it’s also making way for further discrimination and harassment. While those who are not conventionally ‘attractive’ miss out in some ways, the ‘prettier’ employees may suffer in others.

Lookism, law and looking forward

You may be asking whether this is all even legal. While it’s appalling, the reality is that lookism is not against the law. We only have to consider companies like Abercrombie and Fitch, who in the past notoriously employed based primarily on looks.

The value of an obsession with appearance is evident in our everyday encounters with the media. While many organisations are making it their mission to ensure their hiring processes are unbiased, equal and inclusive, it’s important to remember that the beauty bias is ever-present too.

It may be hard for companies to change their bad habits – nay, discrimination – based on the appearance of candidates and employees, especially those whose reputation revolve looks, but it’s another vital part of moving towards a truly equal and non-judgemental culture, with no prejudices present to hold people back, both in the office and beyond.