The "Attractiveness Bonus" in the Workplace
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Studies have shown that beautiful people are paid more than the rest of us. So should ugly people be designated disabled members of a disadvantaged minority meriting compensation as a protected class?
Labor economist Daniel Hamermesh proposes that we consider this option, predicting that sooner or later it will come true.
"Given how willing America has been to expand protection to additional groups since the first broad-based legislation was enacted, predicting the inclusion of the bad-looking under legal protection is a reasonable bet," Hamermesh writes in his new book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful (Princeton University Press, 2011). He wagers that Ugly Aid -- that's my phrase, not his -- might traverse the channels of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and/or the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Hamermesh is one of several scholars worldwide whose research determines that beautiful people earn more:
"The measurement of pay premia and penalties in different jobs and for people belonging to different demographic groups is a standard exercise among economic researchers. Doing so in the case of beauty is a straightforward application."
It is, yet it isn't. Hamermesh admits that beauty is hard to define and that these definitions can be culture-specific. Nonethless, research into what he calls "pulchronomics" yields stark, startling numerical results.
How much is hotness worth? Hamermesh calculates that ugly women (who score 1 and 2 on a 1-to-5-point attractiveness scale) earn 4 percent less than average-looking women (who score 3). Beautiful women (who score 4 and 5) earn 8 percent more than average-looking women and 12 percent more than ugly women. The best-looking men earn 4 percent more than average-looking men, while ugly men earn a daunting 13 percent less than average-looking males, and a staggering -- disabling? -- 17 percent less than the best-looking males.
The Beauty Bonus -- my term, not his -- holds true across a remarkable number of professions. Pulchronomical data show beautiful workers out-earning average-looking and unattractive workers in diverse fields from retail to education to professional athletics to prostitution. A 2006 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that beautiful door-to-door solicitors are nearly twice as successful as their less-attractive counterparts. (Blonde female door-to-door solicitors are the most successful.) An analysis of NFL quarterbacks found that those with the most symmetrical faces -- facial symmetry is a standard beauty-defining factor -- earned 12 percent more than those with the least symmetrical faces.
And no: Brilliance doesn't blur this bias. A Canadian study found that professors scoring high "hotness" ratings from student users at RateMyProfessors.com earn 6 percent more than their less-hot colleagues with otherwise identical qualifications.
"Adjusting for differences among individuals in both intelligence and beauty, those data show that the [monetary] effect of beauty remains substantial even among people with similar intelligence," Hamermesh writes. "Interestingly, the premium for beauty is greater if you are smarter, as is the penalty for being unattractive."
In politics, victory pays: Studies around the world find attractive candidates consistently winning the most votes.
In a study conducted among Los Angeles street prostitutes, those whom the interviewers rated attractive earned about 12 percent more than those whom the interviewers rated as "less than attractive." A similar study found a similar span among erotic escorts.
This begs the question of what, when we pay attractive people more, we pay more for. In the case of sex workers, it's obvious. Hamermesh characterizes erotic escorting as "an occupation where, perhaps more than anything except cinema or national television, customers are concerned about the workers' looks." As for sales, entertainment, politics, product endorsement and any work that entails contact with the public: Consumers want to see, touch and emulate attractive people. Studies show that this is true of even the most liberal, self-describedly tolerant consumers.