The beauty with the briefcase . . .

Back when I was in college, I fully subscribed to the philosophy of one Ani DiFranco, patron saint of angst-filled young women. One of her songs, “32 Flavors”, rang profoundly true for me, especially this verse:

God help you if you are an ugly girl/’Course too pretty is also your doom/’Cause everyone harbors a secret resentment/for the prettiest girl in the room…

Isn’t that the truth? As women, we just can’t win. If we dress down, refuse to wear makeup, and forego those archaic rules of deportment and proper grooming, we’re rendered invisible. And if we come across as too attractive, it’s equally damning—consider the recent case of Debrahlee Loranzana, who claims she was canned from her job at Citibank for being “too hot”. According to the Village Voice, Loranzana was told (among other offensive things) that “as a result of her tall stature, coupled with her curvaceous figure . . . she should not wear classic high-heeled business shoes, as this purportedly drew attention to her body in a manner that was upsetting to her easily distracted male managers.”

Whether or not her suit holds water remains to be seen (Citibank claims that she was fired for completely irrelevant reasons), but Lorenzana’s story does bring to light a very real conundrum for young women in the workplace. How hot is too hot? Can being too beautiful hurt you professionally, or is it all sunshine and roses for those blessed with perfect genetics?

Is pretty a career advantage?
In some careers, beauty has an obvious advantage. Show business, for example, or television news; in these industries, being young and gorgeous is pretty much a prerequisite. Cute waitresses have been shown in various studies to get better tips than their less attractive counterparts. But what about professions that have nothing to do with looks, at least on the surface?

Amanda, a corporate attorney in her early thirties, has found that her appearance has been generally helpful in life, despite the fact that her ability to serve her clients has absolutely nothing to do with her good looks. “To a certain extent it is easier (to be beautiful). In regular everyday interactions, people just seem to have more time for you and are more willing to go out of their way to help you, answer a question, etc. This may have a lot more to do with attitude; beautiful people seem to have the confidence it takes to be treated in this way. There are negative aspects though, too,” she cautions.
“Too much attention to your own looks could make you appear shallow or materialistic. And while I do think I had more opportunities available to me when looking for that first job (it definitely helped during the interview process), professionally, I feel that I have always had to play down my looks in order to be taken seriously.”

Meighan, a 32-year-old biologist, doesn’t necessarily agree. She believes that “people generally have a better impression of others who look good than of those who do not. For example, when going for a job interview, I think that you make a better impression, stand out from other job candidates, and appear generally more put-together if you are good looking.” When asked if being less of a beauty would potentially help her career, she wasn’t so sure. “Based on my theory of people being nicer to more attractive people, perhaps being (even) prettier would help!”

The line between “too hot” and “not hot enough” might be thin, but the research seems to be on the side of beauty. According to a study published in the Journal of Labor Economics by Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle, good-looking workers earn approximately 5% more than those of with “average” attractiveness. And the plainest of workers really get shafted: they earn 9% less than even the average folks, and get promoted less, to boot.

Still, there could be a price to pay for this economic advantage. In a study called “Judging a Book by Its Cover: Beauty and Expectations in the Trust Game,” researchers Rick Wilson of Rice University and Catherine Eckel of the University of Texas at Dallas found that people actually expect more out of beautiful people—and when they don’t deliver, the backlash can be brutal. “People have very high expectations of the level of trust of beautiful people,” Eckel told ABC’s 20/20 on a 2006 episode. “When beautiful people fail to live up to those expectations, they’re punished more harshly than people who are not beautiful.” Remember the point I made about pretty waitresses? Those same studies have suggested that if the pretty waitress doesn’t deliver a higher level of service, people get peeved. In other words, if an average waitress gives average service, no biggie; but if a knockout server fails to give knockout service, the customers get angry and tip far less. So if attractive people meet the higher expectations society places on them, then they certainly benefit—but if they don’t measure up, they are judged more harshly than the plain folk. Starting to feel less resentful of your pretty coworker yet?

The likeability factor
Catherine Kaputa, a personal brand strategist and author of You Are a Brand (winner of the Ben Franklin Award for Best Career Book 2007), and The Female Brand (2009), says that with beauty, “like most things, you can have too much of a good thing. If you’re branded as beautiful (and not merely attractive) you run the risk of being branded merely in terms of your strongest attribute—looks—and have trouble being taken seriously.” She related the story of one client, Caroline, who found that by slightly underplaying her looks and appearing more relatable, she could overcome any negative beauty bias she encountered. “Caroline was careful to dress professionally and stylishly, but not in a trendy or sexy fashion. She made an effort to build relationships one-on-one with colleagues, particularly those who she felt were sabotaging her or jealous of her. Her tactic was to show some vulnerability and appear more like the girl next door than a beauty queen, to share some aspects of her life where she was struggling just like them and it made a tremendous difference.

That “likeability factor” may be the key to extracting the power of beauty in the workplace, without succumbing to its traps. “Look at Jennifer Anniston and Angelina Jolie,” Kaputa suggests. “Both are beautiful women, but Jennifer has a girl-next-door aspect and has had men problems that we can all relate to, so there is a strong likeability factor with her.”

Megan, a 28-year-old teacher, was forced to harness this “likeability” power when she was hired as a permanent substitute for an elementary school. “The interview process was brutal, not because of the principal, but because of the two female teachers she asked to be part of the process. They both grilled me, and they seemed to have a grudge against me the minute I walked in the door,” she laments. And the hazing didn’t end there. “Once I had the job, the other women teachers were very unfriendly and even a little hostile to me. I, of course, can’t say for sure that this had anything to do with my looks or age, but it was the glaringly obvious difference between me and them.”

So, rather than employing the “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” tactic (never a successful way to go, for the record), Megan took the high road. “It took a month or two for me to convince them that I was capable and intelligent. Some of those women are still my friends, and I know I would be welcome to sub there anytime.”

It seems with a little finesse, the beautiful people really do come out on top. But what about those of us who aren’t as genetically blessed? How can we handle our feelings of envy and resentment when it seems the pretty people get all the advantages?

Is the grass greener for those blessed with beauty?
Drug rep Judith was practically turning into Kermit the Frog, she was so envious of her tall, glamazon coworker. “We’d go on sales calls together,” the 26-year-old reminisces, “and I swear the clients wouldn’t even look at me. I felt like her lackey. I’d be sitting there holding our promotional crap, feeling like Shrek. Didn’t help that I happen to be short and a bit on the fluffy side.”

But when her colleague went through a bad breakup and began letting work slip through the cracks, Judith started realizing what a double-edged sword beauty could be. “She became so distracted, and I started to see that her charm was all gloss and no substance. I’d be covering for her constantly, cracking jokes, and the clients started responding more to me. I could see this look of disappointment on their faces when she walked in looking all spacey and distant – it was like they expected her to be this perfect, plastic version of ‘hot sales rep’, and when she let that mask slip, she didn’t really have the sales smarts or anything to fall back on. She’d never had to develop those skills, because it had always been easy for her.” Needless to say, Judith ended the quarter as the highest earning rep on her team; the pretty coworker left the company.

Even if you aren’t a knockout, a little image enhancement can go a long way. In You Are a Brand!, Kaputa offers tips on how to make yourself a more attractive “package”. These include playing up your assets, dressing professionally, and developing a “trademark” look (think Larry King and his suspenders). But even just wearing something that makes you feel attractive and powerful can affect how others treat you. Your grandmother was right: good posture, and carrying yourself with confidence and pride, can work wonders.

25-year-old Jackie was just starting out in her Big 5 accounting firm when she was struck with a viscous (and poorly timed) outbreak of adult acne. “I’d always been the ‘pretty’ one,” she says, “And then suddenly, I became this insecure person, shuffling around the office with my head down because I was so ashamed of how I looked.” She watched as coworkers who’d been in her hiring class began to be promoted left and right; this only fueled her insecurities.

Finally, Jackie’s supervisor sat her down for a talk; she wasn’t meeting company expectations, and he wondered if something was wrong with her personal life. “He told me I’d been their most promising recruit, and that he was sad and confused as to why I wasn’t thriving in our corporate environment. I left that meeting feeling so angry at myself. I’d always told less attractive friends that looks didn’t matter; that if you carried yourself well and had confidence, you’d be successful. And here I was, sabotaging my own career because of a few stupid zits.”

Jackie took herself on a shopping spree that weekend. “I bought a great-fitting suit and the most killer shoes you’ve ever seen,” she grins. “I went in Monday morning and held my head high, acne and all. And you know what? People responded. The more positive reactions I got, the more confident I felt, and pretty soon I was back to being my old self. My acne cleared up eventually, but before it did, I was promoted to a position where I was actually supervising some of those coworkers who’d been promoted before me.”

The moral of this story?
Beauty might give some women an unfair advantage, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of success. And if that doesn’t make you feel better about the ridiculously perfect new hire in your department, remember the immortal words of another one of my favorite poet-philosophers, Miss Piggy: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye.” Enough said, Miss Piggy. Enough said.

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1 Comment

  1. What an interesting and thought provoking article. It certainly provides insight into the age-old question of whether or not beauty is a factor in one’s success. Books are judged by their covers all the time. Whether it’s a beautiful eye-pleasing cover or a less attractive, maybe even drab cover. People make assessments about one another, particularly in business, before ever seeing what the other individual might bring to the table.

    I believe that there is truth to the old adage ‘beauty is only skin deep’. Regardless of your God given natural beauty or body shape, confidence and self-respect often radiate from within. Back in college, I remember a classmate commenting on a girl in our Marketing course. His exact words (which always somehow stuck with me) were ‘She’s not really that cute but her attitude makes her hot’. In the workplace, I think this also rings true. People may not gasp in awe when you step to the front of the room, but if you have the skills, the knowledge of the subject matter and the confidence in them both, you can still command attention.

    Some workplaces are much more formal, where women may have to dress sleeker and be put together maticulously. In order workplaces, there is a more casual vibe and people may not look as polished, but may be just as polished as the individuals that work in those other environment. Again, I think what you radiate comes from within and there is most definitely something to be said about that phenomonon. Perhaps, answering this question raises yet another… how much does confidence and self-assurance matter?

    Maybe the prettiest girl will the get the most initial attention or the less attractive girl might be taken more seriously initially, but how do the two ultimately meet in the middle? And, as women, who do we understand, master and leverage that?

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