News & Politics

The "Attractiveness Bonus" in the Workplace

Studies show pretty people make more money--so should ugly people be designated disabled members of a disadvantaged minority meriting compensation as a protected class?

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 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.  

Like it or not, companies raise revenues by hiring the hot.  

Whether these revenues outbalance the higher cost of hiring attractive employees is a question for the accounting department.  

"Better-looking people will choose occupations where their looks pay off, and worse-looking people will shy away from those occupations," Hamermesh notes. One of his own studies found correlations between lawyers' legal specialties and their attractiveness levels. The best-looking lawyers were highly visible courtroom-drama-type litigators. The least attractive lawyers were regulation and administrative attorneys who worked quietly behind the scenes. 

Even in fields where looks shouldn't matter, they do. In hiring and payment, employers consistently favor attractive people over their worse-looking peers. Hamermesh wonders why. He quotes jewelry designer (and Mick's daughter) Jade Jagger saying in an interview: "God, what gorgeous staff I have. I just can't understand people who have ugly people working for them." 

Do bosses simply want to surround themselves with eye candy? Are beautiful workers considered better workers because their confidence and high self-esteem (thanks to being beautiful) make them cheerier and sweeter-tempered than their hostile, depressed ugly counterparts? Are the beauteous effective team leaders, managers and executives whom clients and coworkers will eagerly help, trust and obey? Do the students of beauteous teachers pay closer attention, thus learn more? 

In the workplace, what does beauty buy? Better pay. Better chances of being hired and promoted. Beauty also buys "access to more opportunities to build skills, meet customers, impress the boss favorably, and so on, than would be given to a worse-looking coworker. The beautiful worker would have the chance to build her skills, perhaps with only small investments of her time. Skills are created through beauty in this case, but the enhanced skills are manna from heaven, in the sense that the worker has done nothing to create her additional earning power." 

Nothing, that is, except sparkle. 

"Skills are thrust upon her by virtue of her good looks," Hamermesh writes. "In this case the effect of looks on earnings would rise ... and it is a real effect." 

With jobs so scarce, is this fair? 

Hamermesh ponders "policies that might be used to protect the ugly." Section 12102 of the Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." Isn't earning a living a major life activity?  

Affirmative action is another option. Warning that this would be tricky, Hamermesh ponders "requiring an employer to offer plans that would indicate how homely people would be hired into entry- and upper-level positions, advance up job ladders, etc." 

Looks-based anti-discrimination laws are already active in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California; Urbana, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; Howard County, Maryland, and elsewhere. Section 512, Title 4 of Washington, DC's Municipal Code outlaws discrimination "on the basis of outward appearance for purposes of recruitment, hiring, or promotion." Such laws could expand. 

Acne-scarred faces under attack! Whatta we do? File suit, fight back.  

"I have shown," Hamermesh concludes, "that bad looks can generate an earnings disadvantage of perhaps $140,000 over a lifetime." (That could buy you two houses right now in central Florida.) "Extending protection to the bad-looking ... may be worth consideration. Bad-looking people should command the sympathy of others. ... Yet the ugly are only one of many groups of individuals who are deserving of protection. The scarcity of political energy for offering protection" -- along with the fees of those good-looking litigators hired to try your case -- "should be considered seriously before we add the bad-looking to the list." 

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, most recently The Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009). Read more of Anneli's writings on scavenging at
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