Surprise: The Beauty Premium Might Not Account for Higher Salaries

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Posted By Terri Williams on March 16, 2017 at 1:18 pm
Surprise: The Beauty Premium Might Not Account for Higher Salaries

This might be another entry for the Everything You Thought You Knew is Wrong Folder: The Beauty Premium, as the reason the best-looking workers have higher salaries. A new study in the Journal of Business Psychology found that very attractive employees may be earning more money for another reason.

“Is There Really a Beauty Premium or an Ugliness Penalty on Earnings?” reveals that while very attractive employees sometimes do earn more, very unattractive employees earn more than unattractive employees and sometimes they even earn more than attractive and average looking workers. According to the study, factors such as health, intelligence, and personality traits such as being an extrovert or being conscientious also impact earnings.

These results were based on an analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health), which measures levels of attractiveness during a span of 13 years.

Inconsistent findings on the Beauty Premium?

Daniel S. Hamermesh, professor of cconomics at Royal Holloway University of London, and Sue Killam Professor Emeritus in the Foundation of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin, is a pioneer in this area. His groundbreaking study with co-author Jeff Biddle, “Beauty and the Labor Market,” revealed a significant beauty premium in the labor market.

Another study by Australian researchers, “Unpacking the Beauty Premium,” found similar results. Even a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis revealed that attractive employees earn roughly 5 percent more per hour.

Hamermesh believes the most recent findings are inconsistent with numerous other studies. One problem: only 1 percent to 2 percent of the people in the study were rated as very unattractive, and Hamermesh tells GoodCall® the percentage is too small to be a focal point. And he says there’s another problem. The survey does not distinguish between men and women on the attractiveness scale.

So why is that a problem?

“A lot more negativity surrounds attractive women than attractive men,” according to Dr. Stefanie K. Johnson, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has written extensively on unconscious biases in how women and minorities are evaluated.

One series of studies, “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful,” explored how attractive women are perceived when they interview for “masculine” jobs. In the first study, male and female undergraduate business students were shown the photos and application materials of attractive women applying for a construction job. The group rated the attractive women higher when they acknowledge their looks and/or gender.

To understand how the study participants reached their conclusions, the researchers also asked them to rate the attractive applicants based on how masculine they looked, how suitable they appeared for the job, and their attitude. When the attractive females acknowledged that they didn’t fit the typical ideal, the participants viewed them more favorably. Another study of construction workers produced similar results.

However, Johnson’s studies also revealed that when unattractive women addressed their gender, it did not make a difference, but when they acknowledged their looks, they actually received lower ratings.

“Often, attractive people are perceived more positively, and this could make sense,” Johnson tells GoodCall®. “But when you control for other characteristics, they are actually undervalued.” And Johnson adds being perceived as attractive has another detrimental effect. “They may not   actually benefit from their looks because some people discriminate against them based on the belief that they’ve gotten ahead based on their appearance.” Perhaps that’s why 20 percent of millennial and Gen-Z women reported being bullied by other women.

Some women are pushing back against gender-specific workplace requirements such as the longstanding practice of wearing high heels in the workplace, and questioning how the height of an employee’s shoes is relevant to their work performance.

Johnson concludes, “Really, we should just ensure the use of more valid selection and promotion metrics so looks cannot help or hurt you.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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