Beauty and the Brain: Is It Harder for Attractive Women to Be Taken Seriously?


Do attractive women have it harder in the modern workplace? (Photo: Getty Images)

A well-known halo effect surrounds physical beauty, more so than any other trait. Science tells us that when we view one characteristic positively, like a pretty face, we’re more likely to have a positive response to the rest of the person’s qualities. Simply put, it’s considered nice to be pretty.

That’s why Charlize Theron’s comments about beauty as a drawback caused such a stir. “Jobs with real gravitas go to people that are physically right for them, and that’s the end of the story,” the physically blessed actress told British GQ, prompting a media frenzy. The magazine quoted her saying: “How many roles are out there for the gorgeous, f***ing, gown-wearing eight-foot model? When meaty roles come through, I’ve been in the room, and pretty people get turned away first.”

Model and actress Emily Ratajkowski echoed Theron’s sentiments in WWD. She thinks twice before taking a role, and the parts she gets handed contain the substance she desires. “It’s not necessarily about taking the most obvious, blockbuster, sexy girl part. Those are the ones I get offers on — the dumb hot girl or the girl the girlfriend’s jealous of,” she said. “It’s hard because you get those offers and you’re, like, ‘Wow, I’m getting offered a giant movie.’ But I really believe you are what you do, and that’s not who I am.”

But how far can a woman separate her professional skill from her outer shell? How does beauty play off one’s intellect? Lately, it seems physical appearance has served to undermine female intelligence and accomplishment — an effect that goes well beyond Hollywood.

How beauty factors into a woman’s professional rise and fall

In the literary scene, where a female author’s looks seem to be largely masked behind the cover of her novel, Entertainment Weekly said, publishers are now regularly rolling the dice on young, debut talent like Emma Cline, Stephanie Danler, and Imbolo Mbue, all of whom have splashy summer releases. Although editors rely first and foremost on “gorgeous writing,” EW says “being photogenic” can sweeten the deal.

In business, beauty can be an easily pegged reason for female success — and failure. When Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes became the darling of Silicon Valley, and then lost it all in a swift fall from grace, her looks could not escape attention. “Billionaire beauty is now worth nothing,” read the New York Post headline in the aftermath of her startup’s downfall.

According to Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, Holmes may be a poster child for beauty’s halo effect. “Her attractiveness may have given the initial pitch that halo,” he tells Yahoo Beauty, referring to the initial lack of scrutiny by investors. “As questions began to be raised about Theranos, her looks became an issue again, and this time she was treated more negatively.”

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This reality is hard for all women who are trying to earn their seat at the table with men. The beauty talk that surrounds a woman’s achievements — and stumbles — subconsciously teaches us that appearance and accomplishment (or lack thereof) go hand in hand.

Every time we credit beauty as the reason for a woman’s trajectory, we quietly reinforce the “vapid beauty” stereotype still pervasive in pop culture — and there are already plenty of reasons the trope exists, says Markman, including intelligent women being perceived as more threatening to men and men being more interested in a woman’s looks than her brain, her talent, her education, or her track record.

Beauty biases, both positive and negative

From an evolutionary perspective, research has long identified the advantages of attractiveness: better-looking men and women tend to get better grades, get hired more readily, and earn more money — something known as “the beauty premium.” But today, with women delaying marriage and seeking their place in a competitive workplace, the effects of physical attractiveness are more scattered and varied.

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According to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Springfield, the natural drive to seek out and live up to standards of beauty creates an incredibly complex equation; for example, new research shows that women will spend more money on makeup during harsh economic times, in large part to present well on the job. “Women now deal with peer pressure, pressure from the media, and female competition,” Ivankovich tells Yahoo Beauty. “This impacts their self-esteem, as beauty is the primary method of assessment by which we are judged.”

To further complicate matters, playing into appearance can be counterproductive to success. Stefanie K. Johnson, PhD, an assistant professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Leeds School of Business, has studied the “beauty is beastly” effect, a term coined by researchers in 1979 to explain why women have such a difficult time getting ahead in typically masculine industries or securing positions we typically see men occupy.

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Johnson says that, while physically attractive women may be hired in settings where appearance may matter (receptionist, model), they may have trouble being promoted in paths where they don’t “fit the mold.” Think: industries like construction and engineering but also executive and leadership positions — just check the list of Fortune 500 CEOs, where you’ll find just 21 women (4 percent of the total pool).

Johnson tells Yahoo Beauty that gender-role expectations create some of “the strongest and most automatic” expectations. So if a woman violates her gender role, reactions are unfortunately negative. “An attractive woman interviewing for a masculine job will have some very strong inferences — like, perhaps she is too feminine to do the job,” she says. “These thoughts are so strong, in fact, that we found the interviewer often cannot even pay attention to what she [the candidate] is saying.” Johnson says these biases do not extend to men. “Attractive women are often seen as lacking brains or using their looks to get ahead. We have done some qualitative research … that shows we actually don’t trust attractive women” and how they made it as far along as they have.

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Ivankovich says she has counseled many women who get the cold shoulder from their peers at the workplace but don’t feel they can talk about it openly. “In one case, a highly educated client of mine was told that her appearance and her master’s degree were intimidating, and the interviewer feared that, if hired, she would take the interviewer’s job,” she says. “It only serves to perpetuate the stigma that beauty and intelligence are something to be ashamed of.”

What women can do

As hard as it is, we need to start eliminating the “beauty premium” and try to stop factoring looks into opinions on competence and accomplishment. “As long as we have societal perceptions that support beauty meaning a lack of intelligence, or beauty creating greater competition, then we are bound to continue down this path in a manner that places value on an arbitrary concept,” Ivankovich says.

She says all women must know their own worth and be willing to push harder to find a company and position where their intelligence and achievements are highly valued — or create the way themselves. Ivankovich indicates that we need more women like Karlie Kloss to push their way into fields that most interest them; the 23-year-old supermodel recently started college at NYU and has been trying to get women interested in the male-dominated field of coding through her “Kode with Karlie” programs — all well after she achieved success in a looks-dominated industry.

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For women trying to carve a path to the top in traditionally — or predominantly — male industries, Johnson has also developed some useful tips from her research. For instance, if a woman suspects she doesn’t fit the typical mold for a job she wants, or feels she has been discounted in the past — perhaps a woman in engineering, gaming, or one who is interviewing for a top management position — she can acknowledge it briefly to remove the lens muddying her accomplishments.

In Johnson’s 2014 study, if a woman said something along the lines of “I know I don’t look like your typical construction worker, but I have a lot of experience in this industry,” she was more likely to be rated positively by the interviewer. According to Johnson, this “gets the elephant out of the room and appearance out of the way,” clearing the interviewer’s mind to consider her plethora of experience.

According to Markman, this makes sense. “The first step toward eliminating a stereotype is to acknowledge that it exists and to make it explicit,” he says. “Many of the stereotypes people hold are implicit, and they bias the way people interpret information without their awareness. People cannot correct for this bias until they are aware that it exists.” So when more women like Theron and Ratajkowski speak out about their on-the-job treatment, we begin to question our own implicit biases.

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Ultimately, we need to change the conversation on female success; it can be detrimental to talk so much about the looks of professional women without acknowledging the bias that comes along with it. Women all have uniquely beautiful traits, and we now live in a world where we celebrate individuality. To point out a woman’s appearance in the same conversation as her success is a step backward, undermining the hard work of rising female titans.

Johnson says, in an era where feminism is rapidly expanding a woman’s opportunities, she should be allowed to be herself — whether she loves her skin clean of makeup and her hair naturally curly, or whether she prefers a blowout and a swipe of lipstick. Beauty and brains are separate entities, and we should try our best to treat them as such.

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