Beauty is Pain: An Overlooked Discrimination

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As it is National Disability Awareness month; I recently presented on bias-free interviewing at my Company’s Operations Conference. In addition to going over the legal aspects of discrimination; we talked extensively about how to interview and how to avoid natural biases. It got me thinking about another kind of discrimination that’s common in the workplace; though one would hardly call it a ‘disability:’  the beauty bias.

I had always assumed that there were hiring managers that would tend to hire people who are more attractive, since we all hear statistics that back up that assertion; such as how taller men and women make more money than their shorter counter-parts (over $750/inch over 5’6”!).  Or who can forget the famous Kelly Girls of times past?  ‘Beautiful’ was unabashedly encouraged to apply; not only did it help them catch a job…. But a husband, too!  Needless to say, in my role as Head of Corporate HR; I strive to ensure we have an inclusive workplace; as free from prejudice as possible.

That said, when it comes to the “beauty bias?” I do think attractive men are much more likely to get hired by other men and women; but attractive women are likely to struggle when the hiring manager is a woman or when the position is considered “masculine” in nature.

“Masculine” Jobs

A study by Ken Podratz, of Rice University, found that while average-looking and attractive men were picked more often for jobs such as switchboard operator or tow-truck driver; beautiful women lost these same positions to less attractive females. In some jobs, an employer’s gender was a factor: Men were eager to place female beauties in jobs that emphasize appearance or interpersonal contact; like receptionists, secretaries, or public relations professionals.  However, female employers were less willing to do so.  When it came to “male-oriented” jobs or jobs in which appearance wasn’t considered important; both men and women opted for the less attractive women.

The reason? “Physical attractiveness is correlated with perceived femininity in women,” says Podratz. “If a highly attractive female applies for a hypermasculine job such as truck driver or security guard; she is likely to be seen as less capable of meeting the physical demands of the job.” These results “open up a can of worms,” says Podratz, who, in this study, asked 66 subjects to consider 204 headshots, all rated for attractiveness, as candidates for jobs.   Looks like there’s a whole new reason for women to say, “Don’t hate [on] me because I’m beautiful.”

Doubly so if she happens to be working for a Queen Bee.

Queen Bee Syndrome

Question:  How many women were in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet?
Answer: One (and she was no looker!).

The Queen Bee” syndrome was first defined by G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayaratne, and C. Tavris in 1973. It describes a woman in a position of authority who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female.  Women who are considered beautiful by the Queen Bee may suffer even more from her aggression.  They often see other, usually younger, women as competitors and will refuse to help them advance within a company; preferring to mentor a male over a female employee. Some “queen bees” may even actively take steps to hinder another woman’s advancement as they are seen as direct competitors.  And goodness help the beauty that the Queen Bee sees as competition not only in the workplace; but as someone who might detract from her self image.

When it Comes to Beauty; Proof is in the Pudding

Newsweek polled hiring managers about a woman’s level of attractiveness in the work place. Not surprisingly, women in the workplace are often faced with a double bind: they are expected to be sexy but can be punished for being too attractive. Sixty-one percent of the hiring managers that were  surveyed—60 percent of whom were men—said they believe a woman would benefit from wearing clothing that shows off her figure at work. Meanwhile, 47 percent of those same managers said they believe some women are penalized for being too good-looking in the office.  As a whole, women are perceived to benefit more from their looks: 39 percent of managers believe that being “very good-looking” is more of an advantage for women than men, while only 16 percent believe the opposite—that it’s more beneficial to men than to women.

Early into my HR career I ran into this lady in the restroom in the building where we had our Corporate Offices.  She was, by all accounts, gorgeous:  blue, big-eyed, tall, leggy blonde without a trace of discernable body fat.  She was also crying.  When I asked her what was wrong; she explained she had just interviewed for a Sales Management role for her Employer (not my Company, thankfully).  Her sales were higher than the most of her team; and she also had a PhD in Consumer Psychology!  She went on to say that her VP had told her that she’d be better off “without the stress” of management & that she was “made for the Sales floor.”  I did my best to console her; but it got me to thinking:  For her, and probably many others… Beauty Equated to Professional Pain.

Maybe there was a legitimate reason she was denied the promotion she sought that she failed to mention; but I realized being beautiful came with its own set of issues… it wasn’t an automatic pass to Easy Street.  That Sales lady was suffering… even if only in her mind it was because of that long blonde hair, baby blue eyes, and mile long legs.  She was fighting a battle just like the rest of us; and likely still is… except she’s doing it in size 4 Calvin Klein shift dresses and Manolos.  Suddenly my comfortable Nine West heels felt even better than they had moments before.

I came to understand that we, as a society, set up the very situations that create this continued & often overlooked type of discrimination in the workplace.  It’s just as inappropriate to deny a qualified worker employment or advancement opportunities on the basis that they’re “beautiful” as it is to shut out the person in a wheelchair.   And this month, when once again as a Nation we shine a spotlight on discriminatory employment practices; maybe we should all, as Leaders, make a conscious effort to leave the pain that comes with beauty out of the workplace and to the footwear we choose to wear… where it belongs.

Author’s note:  I wrote this piece as part of a collaborative project with Crystal Miller; who was writing an article for MonsterThinking.  The two of us have talked for ages about while there is much said & written about discrimination due to race, religion, disability, and gender in general; the bias for & against beauty is one that’s often overlooked in the world of work.  You can see her article on MonsterThinking.Com, “Beauty at Work:  How Physical Appearance Impacts Job Search & Careers”  here.

Image Credit: GiniMiniGi via stock.xchng

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I’m a Vice President of Human Resources. Eternal optimist. Love sports, especially my teams (Horned Frogs, Cowboys, Cottagers). Law school grad in HR (and loving it). Horrible dancer. Native Texan. 


  1. I could say something…a few things, but I know better! Lol…good post…life isn’t fair is really all I have to say – and I say that to my boys all the time when they whine, “It’s Not Faaaiirrrrrr!!!” I say “Get used to it” and maybe go on to say you have to figure out how you can try and level the playing field!

  2. Interesting insights here Lalli! I really appreciate this refreshing viewpoint on workplace diversity and general people culture musings. What does it really mean to be good looking from a workplace perspective and what’s the psychological impact? Telling stories can be a very powerful way of shedding light on ideas and topics.

    I vote we continue to challenge stereotypes in the workplace and hiring practices. Agree, so often we tend to focus on one or two subsets of groups that tend to get the most publicity at national conferences, sm tweetups, the list goes on. Thinking diversely and creatively creates real dialogue with the long term (change takes patience and education) result being a happier or (at least contented) workplace.

    Creating a diverse workplace or social community culture should not stop at simply “tolerating” the differences between people but actively nurture and celebrate this consistently via sound leadership and team building. This materializes with leadership behaviors that encourage open communication and other viewpoints in a genuine manner. We have a long way to go and more work to do. Cheers. Take action.

  3. This is a great start to a conversation about the range of things that are not covered by conventional definitions of bias. Height, weight, facial hair, intellect, clothing choices, fashion choices, diet, exercise and a host of other non-relevant dimensions are often gates to the inner circle. The whole idea of dressing for success is that if you can figure out the factors, you can game them.

    The question I’m interested in is where the healthy boundary is between these biases and organizational culture. I know that, just as the definition of beauty varies from region to region, so do these other factors. In part, the bias for or against certain physical attributes is the very definition of culture.

    How do great managers (and great Recruiters) manage the boundary between discrimination that makes the company ineffective and the sort of bias that reinforces a culture’s strengths?

    1. @JohnSumser Precisely John. I like your add to this thread. Great managers and recruiters see people in 3D.

      It’s really in the nuance where all the interesting diversity matter lives. Let’s move away from the idea of “tolerating diversity” for one moment and ponder the tiny details of how people perceive and relate to each other in the workplace for starts. Recruiting strategy and workplace culture take on an entire new meaning. It’s certainly not a simple equation….

      1. It’s soon to get even more complex. Caucasians are soon to be the minority in a number of border states (it’s already the case in California). Women are graduating from college at rates that dwarf men. Our ability to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of our own culture is increasing as we learn to understand others around the globe.

        Far beyond tolerating diversity, we are entering a time where the operational definition is going to change rapidly. It’s a really good time to begin looking closely at the way we decide what are cultures will be.

        In information businesses, management jobs and many service occupations, we pay our people to be good at making judgments. We don’t invest much in the way of education about how to do that well.

        It’s also interesting to note that some non-Western cultures (India, in particular) are vastly more effective at understanding and harnessing differences.

        1. @JohnSumser Thanks so much for the feedback on the article. I’ve been reading your stuff for years so it’s one of those full circle moments!

  4. Recently I read an article on Resume Bear saying that if you’re an attractive woman, you’re more likely to be hired by a man, but not a woman. The “Queen Bee Syndrome” explains it all! -Sarah

  5. Newsweek’s “study” be damned, methinks it’s another example of someone trying to prove their own hypothesis with loaded questions. Beautiful people get preferential treatment more often than not, regardless of profession.

    “Remember the reaction of the judges and the audience when Susan Doyle walked onto the stage? I close my case.”

    And when can we move from “tolerating diversity” to simply accepting it as the way of the world. Bruce nails it with his comments. Life is not fair, and appearances matter – deal with it.

    PS – Think I should get a younger looking avatar for my LinkedIn & Twitter profiles? I was drop-dead gorgeous in my 20’s.

    1. @SylvieDahl Thanks for your take on this. I can’t speak from personal experience, but I have many educated, attractive female friends who are mistaken for being the “receptionist” when they in fact are the attorney. Why? They are attractive and clients (and hiring managers, at times) can’t imagine that someone is attractive AND smart. Men suffer less of this, I think. Women seem to bear the brunt of the “she’s too hot to be smart/successful” crown.

  6. I think you raise some valid points about what I would call “beauty prejudices”. I spent over 30 years in corporate HR Leadership/Management positions and observed quite a few employment decisions influenced by the physical appearance of both men and women. You are probably right that more women than men get penalized for their beauty at higher level positions. I do think regardless of your gender and physical appearance, your talent (or lack of same) will eventually win out. My wife, who is “hot” and incredibly smart, was the VP of Financial Planning of a major insurance company and is a CPA, and no one will ever get in her way of achieving success.

  7. Yes, this is so true… This is what really is happening to our workplace and often times, this is a pain in the neck. Pleasing personality is enough.

  8. There is no other good things than having a clear glowing skin. Having a nice skin is a pride, it makes women even more beautiful, more attractive, and being attractive could boost confidence.

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