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Shocking Truths About Beauty Bias at Work

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By Lisa Johnson Mandell


Have you ever felt like you lost out on a job or a promotion to someone you thought was less qualified, but better looking? Do you feel like you've been discriminated against in the workplace because of your weight, height or style? If so, wasn't the employer breaking the law, and isn't there something you can do about it?

Not necessarily, according to author and law professor Deborah L. Rhode, who is also the director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Standford University. In her new book, 'The Beauty Bias--The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law,' she points out that while beauty biases are rampant, there's not a whole lot you can do about them--legally.

In some cases, it seems to be a matter of, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Even as a college professor, Rhode has been asked to change her wardrobe so she would be more appealing to the student body and the community. And it goes beyond clothing--if the natural progression of time has made you look worried and/or angry, (as the women in the 'Before' pictures) and a little Botox skillfully injected can make you look less stressed and more congenial (as the women in the 'After' pictures), why not? It can only be helpful to have your colleagues and your competition perceive you as being positive, confident and in control.

But cosmetic procedures are elective--how much control should your employer legally be allowed to have over the way you look? Also, how much emphasis on looks is too much emphasis? And is it fair to hold women to higher and more rigid standards than men? Can anything be done about it?

In her book, Rhode points out that the professional beauty bias is likely responsible for such startling facts as:

· More than half of young women surveyed reported they would prefer to be hit by a car than to be fat, and two-thirds would rather be mean or stupid.


· During the last presidential campaign, more money was spent on Sarah Palin's stylists than on her political advisers.


· More than 1/6 of the population lacks access to basic health care, yet cosmetic procedures are the fastest-growing medical specialty, with women accounting for 90 percent of the procedures.


· About 60 percent of overweight women and 40 percent of overweight men report experiences of employment discrimination.


· Short males often get the short end of the stick when it comes to hiring, promotion and earnings.


· Waitresses can be restricted to specific weights, hairstyles and shoes, but their male counterparts rarely are required to meet the same restrictions.


· Failure to maintain a youthful appearance can impose significant career costs, particularly for female employees.

For women in the workplace, you're sort of damned if you do and damned if you don't. "Women face a standard more difficult to satisfy; they can lose by being either too attractive or not attractive enough," Rhode writes. "Unattractive women are disadvantaged in female-dominated occupations, such as receptionist or secretary. But in upper-level positions that historically have been male-dominated, beautiful or "sexy" workers are subject to the "Bloopsy effect": Their attractiveness suggest less competence and intellectual ability. Women with exceptionally large breasts are particularly likely to be judged lower in intelligence and effectiveness."

So if you're thinking of having cosmetic procedures in order to to get a better job or a promotion, you can cross boob job off your list. Plastic surgeon Dr. Linda Li, of the reality TV show Dr. 90210, says that both women and men often come to her for procedures they hope will enhance their careers. "It's not about looking younger, it's about looking better," she says. She notes that during the recession, fewer people have had major procedures, like face lifts, tummy tucks, etc., but more people than ever are having non-surgical procedures for professional purposes.

"Both men and women want to appear fresh and relaxed, as opposed to tired and haggard," Li says. "Botox and fillers like Juvederm can erase the lines between the eyes that make people look worried or angry. When you're trying to make a good impression on an employer, it's far more appealing to look open and happy." She adds that these procedures also affect the way you feel, giving you the confidence of looking your best, which can't help but affect the way you perform at work.

Unfortunately, minor cosmetic procedures will not remedy all work-related appearance prejudices. Rhode sites study after study that prove the beauty bias is deep-seeded in the American workplace: "Resumes get a more favorable assessment when they are thought to belong to more attractive candidates. Overweight individuals are subject to a similar bias; they are seen as less likable and less well-adjusted, and as having less self-control, self-discipline, effective work habits and ability to get along with others. Good-looking faculty receive better course evaluations from students, just as good-looking students receive higher ratings on intelligence from teachers."

Perhaps most shocking of all, Rhode sites a survey that shows, "For racial and ethnic minorities, skin color and Anglo-European features play a similar role; those with dark skin and nappy hair have lower income and occupational status, even controlling for socioeconomic background."

Still, it's difficult to legislate behaviors biased on looks because, while easy to study, they're difficult to prove in a court of law. The woman who feels that she was overlooked for a job because she feels she wasn't attractive enough would first have to admit she's unattractive, and then prove that that the person who finally got the job was not only prettier, but was also less qualified. Those things are so subjective. How can you argue looks with an employer who says, "While Candidate B doesn't have the education Candidate A has; we thought her experience and personality would be a better fit in our organization"?

American law generally prohibits discrimination based on gender, religion, age, race, ethnicity and disability -- but there are few laws, either national or local, that protect against discrimination based on appearance.

However, Rhode points out that the importance of looks changes from occupation to occupation, and from location to location. "Attractiveness matters most in metropolitan areas and in jobs relying on influence and image rather than physical labor. On the whole, however, less attractive individuals are less likely to be hired and promoted, and they earn lower salaries despite the absence of any differences in cognitive ability."

In an ideal world, according to Rhode, "the importance of appearance would not be overstated. Nor would it spill over to employment and educational contests in which judgments should be based on competence, not cosmetics." But is there any possible way to make that perfect world a reality?

Rhode has a number of suggestions for remedies. Among them:


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