We’re calling it the Ariel Effect: if you’re tall, thin and attractive with red hair, your career prospects look promising. Read on to find out how appearance bias can play out in the workplace.
Unconscious bias training exists to try and minimise the influence of these attributes on decision-making processes, but how much attention do you pay to less obvious factors – such as height, weight, hair colour or beauty – that could be influencing your decision to offer someone a job, a promotion or a raise?
Of course, these factors are likely to vary depending on the culture and standards of a particular industry, as well as an individual’s own preferences. Constructs like beauty and the ‘ideal weight’ are highly subjective.
Heighten your career prospects
Reaching for the skies is an oft-quoted idiom for good reason.
In a recent meta-analysis of 65 empirical studies published in Leadership Quarterly, researchers found that taller people are perceived as being “more dominant, healthy, intelligent and leader-like”, resulting in a greater likelihood of them being appointed to a leadership role.
Research from PloS ONE came to the same conclusion, casting further light on instances in which appearance bias may occur. The study of more than 3500 Chinese adults found that annual income was likely to be greater for taller people. For every additional centimetre of height, there was a corresponding increase in annual income by 1.3 per cent.
There is an upper limit, however, with the research suggesting the return on height begins to plateau at the 6′ mark.
Source: Shick and Steckel via The Atlantic.
Appearance bias against larger-bodied workers
In 2019, Pakistan International Airlines issued an edict to overweight cabin crew, telling them to shed some pounds or say goodbye to their jobs. When HRM previously reported on this instance of weight discrimination, we shared the personal experience of Nathan Schokker, founder of Talio, a facilities management and cleaning company.
“I’m a bit of a larger guy… so when you feel people measuring you up, making assumptions about your abilities, skills and experience within the first few seconds of meeting you, that can be really disheartening,” Schokker told HRM at the time.
“It’s a knock to your confidence. From that point on, you feel like you’re just on the back foot the whole time, to the extent where you question the point of continuing the meeting or the conversation beyond that point.”
Unfortunately, Schokker is justified in feeling like he’s often on the back foot.
According to a 2018 LinkedIn study of 4000 adults in the UK, one in four overweight workers felt they missed out on a job opportunity or promotion because of their size.
It also found employees classified as obese according to their BMI earn less than workers with an average BMI. Forty-three per cent of obese respondents said they felt colleagues with a lower BMI progressed more quickly in the company.
The ‘thinner does better’ finding was even felt by 28 per cent of respondents in the healthy weight range. Appearance bias still impacts this group, who believed their lighter colleagues progressed more quickly.
When gender enters the equation, overweight or obese women were more likely to receive a lower salary than men of the same weight. The study found a gender gap of $11,547 (US).
Interestingly, however, male respondents said they received more negative comments about their body compared to women.
Ginger hair could make you a millionaire
Got your eye on the top job? If you were born with fiery red locks, you might be in with a better chance.
One study from the Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment (UK) found that redheads were overrepresented in the 500 CEOs, all of whom were members of the London Financial Times Stock Exchange.
Given approximately 25 per cent of the UK population has blonde hair and 1 per cent has red hair, the researchers didn’t expect to see similar representation from both blonde and red-haired leaders (see graph below).
“Of the 500 CEOs analysed 5 per cent were blondes and 4 per cent had red hair,” says Dr Marilyn Helms of Dalton State College, one of the researchers behind the paper.
Helms’s research shows that brunettes still dominate leadership positions, but the fact that redheads trail so closely behind blondes shouldn’t be glossed over – after all, they make up less than 2 per cent of the global population.
Image: Hair Color Stereotyping and CEO Selection in the United Kingdom, Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment.
“Blondes, who are historically viewed as incompetent and likeable, were underrepresented in positions of corporate leadership in the UK. Redheads, while a minuscule number in the UK population, were over selected to lead some of the United Kingdom’s (and Europe’s) largest, wealthiest companies,” says Helms.
She puts these differences down to long-held stereotypes, observing that redheads are typically perceived as being unlikeable but competent, whereas blonde candidates are perhaps impacted by the damaging and false ‘dumb blonde’ narrative, and therefore perceived to be incompetent.
Looking at local data, the UNSW Australian School of Business found that brunette women entering the job market received higher pay (9 per cent more) than blonde women at the same point in their careers. On the other hand, according to the University of Queensland’s survey of 13,000 women, blondes earn seven per cent more than women with other hair colours.
Evidently, research on the blonde vs brunette debate remains mixed. And while this research is exploratory in its nature – and someone’s hair colour alone is unlikely to be the determining factor in deciding to hire or promote them – it offers interesting insight into the small elements that can influence our perceptions of an individual. And the little things always count.
Blessed with good looks
You’ve probably heard that attractiveness is positively correlated with the likelihood of being hired, promoted and paid more.
But one finding that may elicit surprise is how gender intersects with beauty.
In 2015, an economist at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Institute, Eva Sierminska, found the beauty gap to be bigger for men.
The research, reported in the IZA World of Labour, suggests the discrepancy between the genders may exist due to differing employment opportunities for men and women.
Sierminska argues that ‘attractive’ women are more likely to enter the workforce in large part because they’re more confident about securing a job with a higher salary than their “less attractive” female counterparts. Because of this, Sierminska suggests less attractive women are then less inclined to enter the job market due to the “perceived disincentives”.
“As a result, there is less beauty variation in the labor market among women and so the payoff to good looks for women will be smaller,” she says.
“However, the same does not hold true for men. In their case, selection based on physical appearance is smaller and they have higher labor force participation rates in general. This suggests that, in theory, they will also have larger premiums due to good looks compared with women. However, with the increased labor force participation of women, the gap in the effect is expected to decrease.”
Sierminska admits beauty can be difficult to measure – it’s not universal or fixed. It can also be confounded by someone’s confidence or personality type, she says. However questionable her findings may seem, the existence of a bigger beauty gap for men may have some empirical basis – and other researchers agree.
The jury on gender and beauty is still out on this one though. Published in the American Economic Review, Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle found that the beauty premium is comparable for men and women.
We also know there are often unrealistic beauty standards placed on women to look the part, so this research should be considered with caution.
What can HR do to address appearance bias?
In addition to unconscious bias training, here are a few other strategies to tackle lookism in the workplace:
- Economist Eva Sierminska, whose research was outlined earlier in this article, suggests companies should institute a policy of anonymous job applications.
- Implement policies and regulations that ban appearance-based discrimination. Such regulations would follow in the lead of France’s nation-wide anti-lookism law, and the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 1995 that outlaws discrimination on the basis of an employee’s physical attributes.
- Roll-out bystander training for employees, so that those who see appearance-based discrimination are equipped with the skills and knowledge to intervene.
- Look beyond the façade: Nicholas Vayenas, managing director at Liquid HR, previously shared with HRM a piece of advice he was told during interviewer training. “The facilitator stressed that we shouldn’t be seduced (professionally speaking) by the candidate who ‘looked the part’ and/or ‘spoke with confidence’. His message was to scrutinise the appropriateness of the candidate’s answers and not to be distracted by façade.”
Learn more about eliminating appearance bias in your workplace through AHRI’s Unconscious Bias course.