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The Beauty Advantage

Publication Date: 
July 19, 2010
Source: 
Newsweek
Author: 
Jessica Bennett

Professor Deborah Rhode is quoted in this Newsweek segment on the issue of looks-based discrimination in the workplace:

Most of us have heard the story of Debrahlee Lorenzana, the 33-year-old Queens, N.Y., woman who sued Citibank last month, claiming that, in pencil skirts, turtlenecks, and peep-toe stilettos, she was fired from her desk job for being “too hot.” We’ve also watched Lorenzana’s credibility come into question, as vintage clips of her appearance on a reality-TV show about plastic surgery portray a rambling, attention-obsessed twit, stuffed to the brim with implants and collagen. (“I love plastic surgery,” she coos. “I think it’s the best thing that ever happened.”) Creepy, yes. But for all the talk about this woman’s motives—and whether or not she was indeed fired for her looks—there’s one question nobody seems to want to ask: isn’t it possible Lorenzana’s looks got her the job in the first place?

Not all employers are that shallow—but it’s no secret we are a culture consumed by image. Economists have long recognized what’s been dubbed the “beauty premium”—the idea that pretty people, whatever their aspirations, tend to do better in, well, almost everything. Handsome men earn, on average, 5 percent more than their less-attractive counterparts (good-looking women earn 4 percent more); pretty people get more attention from teachers, bosses, and mentors; even babies stare longer at good-looking faces (and we stare longer at good-looking babies). A couple of decades ago, when the economy was thriving—and it was a makeup-less Kate Moss, not a plastic-surgery-plumped Paris Hilton, who was considered the beauty ideal—we might have brushed off those statistics as superficial. But in 2010, when Heidi Montag’s bloated lips plaster every magazine in town, when little girls lust after an airbrushed, unattainable body ideal, there’s a growing bundle of research to show that our bias against the unattractive—our “beauty bias,” as a new book calls it—is more pervasive than ever. And when it comes to the workplace, it’s looks, not merit, that all too often rule.

...

Deborah Rhode, a Stanford law professor and author of The Beauty Bias, is herself an interesting case study. During her term as chair of the American Bar Association’s commission on working women, she was struck by how often the nation’s most powerful females were stranded in cab lines and late for meetings because, in heels, walking any distance was out of the question. These were working, powerful, leading women, she writes. Why did they insist on wearing heels? ...

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... As Rhode puts it, silver hair and furrowed brows may make aging men look “distinguished,” but aging women risk marginalization or ridicule for their efforts to pass as young. “This double standard,” Rhode writes, “leaves women not only perpetually worried about their appearance—but also worried about worrying.”