Think Looks Don't Matter? Think Again

The ugly truth: The more attractive you're perceived to be, the more you earn and are respected.

By Laura Sinberg, Forbes

beautyIf you want to get a raise or a promotion, you might want to throw on a pair of heels and suck in that belly. Your looks can help--or hinder--your chances of getting a well-deserved promotion, regardless of qualifications, especially in a sour economy when advancements are few and hard to come by.

Women who advance most at work, studies agree, are more attractive, thinner, taller and have a more youthful appearance than their female colleagues who are promoted less often.

See the full list of Easy Ways To Look Your Best At Work

A landmark study from Cornell University found that when white females put on an additional 64 pounds, her wages drop 9%. And according to a 2007 paper from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a statistically significant "wage penalty" for overweight and obese white women. ("Previous studies have shown that white women are the only race-gender group for which weight has a statistically significant effect on wages," according to the paper.) The obese take a bigger hit, with a wage loss of 12%.

Being large leads to negative stereotypes--thinking that person is sloppy, lazy or slow, for example--for women that just aren't true, says Bill Fabrey, a director of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination.

Fabrey recounts incidences of several plus-size female colleagues who have gotten interviews with prospective employers only to be told the job had been filled once they showed up for an in-person interview.

"There are interviewers who don't care [about weight], but those are not as plentiful as the other kind," he says.

Being average looking comes with a hefty price, too. The best-looking echelon of attractive females--the top one-third--make about 10% more annually than those in the bottom sixth of the genetic pool, according to research by Daniel Hamermesh, Ph.D., a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Just what makes for attractive? According to Hamermesh in a interview with CNN, "It's symmetry of features. ... But not too [attractive]. It's not perfect. If it's perfect, it's bland. There's got to be a little off, otherwise you lose interest." Apart from a balanced face--and good physical health--a woman's appeal is also reportedly in having a low waist-to-hip ratio.

And youth. A study done this year by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that some 73% of women felt a youthful appearance played a role in getting a job, getting promoted or keeping clients. Many cited difficult economic times as part of the reason--with fewer raises and promotions to be given, the better-looking are the ones advancing.

"In this bad economy, as people age, employers and colleagues perceive them as having less energy and being less effective" notes Gordon Patzer, Ph.D., a psychologist from Chicago who has studied looks for 30 years. "Being older in the workplace is looked at negatively," he adds.

Patzer says bleaching your teeth, wearing appropriate makeup or updating your hairstyle or wardrobe can take years off a person's look.

What's Behind Our Thinking?

Various psychological reasons can answer why we choose to promote better-looking people and keep the rest behind. For ancestral humans, better-looking people were thought to be more productive and fecund, according to Patzer.

And, interestingly, able to bring home more food. From a psychological standpoint, Patzer says, "people of higher physical attractiveness are more persuasive, which is critical in the workplace."

That may be the reason women of short stature get the short end of the stick. Although there is no correlation between height and effectiveness or intelligence, a woman who is 5 feet 7 inches tall--well above the national female average of 5 feet, 3.5 inches--will make $5,250 more over the course of a year than a female co-worker standing 5 feet 2 inches.

"We like to look up to our leaders," says Patzer, noting that a subordinate is more likely to respond positively to a taller manager.

Malcolm Gladwell calls the behavior an unconscious prejudice, a prejudice you reach without even thinking. In his best-selling book Blink, he polled about half the country's top 500 CEOs and found that 58% were nearly 6 feet tall; in contrast, the average American male is 5 foot 9 inches tall.

Also, because most states don't have laws against weight or height discrimination--currently Michigan is the only state that includes either group as a protected category under anti-discrimination law--women stand underprotected.

"Either the judicial and legislative arm of the market have decided that's OK [to favor certain groups], or they've decided that trying to do something about it would be way too difficult," says Bill O'Brien, founding partner at Miller O'Brien Cummins, a Minneapolis firm that specializes in labor and employment law.

"On the subject of physical appearance, there is not much protection under employment statutes," he adds.

What Can You Do?

In a competitive work environment, it is only natural to want to do everything possible to get an extra edge, but if you're thinking pricey cosmetic surgeries are the answer, you're mistaken. Women who go under the knife make an extra five cents per dollar they spend on the dangerous procedures, according to Hamermesh's research. "It's a terrible investment," he says.

Instead, Judy Jernudd, a leadership coach in Los Angeles, recommends honing certain psychological behaviors, like walking upright and with confidence, which will make you seem taller than someone who is slouched over or walking with her head down. It will also trick others into perceiving you as more physically attractive. Heels will also help, but not over an inch and a half, say most podiatrists.

Although there isn't a lot you can do to make yourself look thinner--wearing dark colors and streamlined clothes help--Jernudd does note that women with confidence always come across as thinner and better-looking. "A lot of it has to do with personality," she says.

So what about women who say looks shouldn't matter in the workplace?

"It shouldn't matter, but it does," says Jernudd. "It is competitive enough today. Why sabotage yourself by not giving it the best you can?"

See the full list of Easy Ways To Look Your Best At Work

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Man oh man! I cannot believe some of the comments on here. Tons of immature "look oriented" folks I see.
I am 61 years old and retired at the age of 56 with full retirements benefits and insurance. I started out as a beautician, going to beauty school and highschool at the same time. I graduated both at the same time and immediately went to work after I passed my State Boards. I was 17 years old at that time. At the age of 23 I quit doing hair and went and took a test to work for the State. Passed it and started working for $2.31 an hour. The lowest job on the totem pole. Within 10 years, I had worked my way up to being an assistant manager and 3 years after that I managed 9 offices within the state in a certain aspect of thier department. These were jobs that required college educations, which I did not have.
What I did have was the determination to learn any and everything I could about the department I worked for. I worked my ass off and most times worked circles around anyone else in the office, including my manager. I had 7 Superior Performance pay increases over the 30 years I worked there. I retired from my job making $38.28 an hour.
During this entire time, I was overweight, not morbidly but over weight, I am 5'9" and go between 220 to 250. I was and am still very attractive. Weight has nothing to do with sloppy or lazy. I have hired many thin folks who had no self image or pride what so ever and I would need a bell to clang in thier ears just to make sure they were alive at thier desks.
The biggest qualification anyone can exibit to me would be good ole common sense and the drive to constantly learn and change with the company. Don't feel your entitled to a damn thing, cuz unless you can prove it by work ethics, production superiority and initiatives and willingness to be part of the team, you are going no where. There is nothing worse than an Educated idiot and I have met tons of them in my life time.
Looks and attractivness go as far as a glance. But drive, ambition, good work ethics and again good common sense go thousands of miles beyond any beauty.. trust me.
As far as laziness and and being sloppy about appearances or even being smelly.... I would think any person of authority would approach anyone with these problems and send them back home to return to work in a presentable and clean manner. I had an employee who I ordered to go home and bathe, put on clean clothes and deodarant on more than one occasion and the person was thin not fat.. so please don't degrade overweight folks as most of you are doing with your comments. And lets not forget the folks that use cologne or perfume to mask personal smells. Again.. has nothing to do with weight.
I have never ever been lazy in my life. It is the way I choose to be. It had nothing to do with my weight at all. I can problably do more work physically than any man I know still. Laziness and the " I have a right to it" attitude or the " I am better than he/she is" stance in the work world will get you zip.
Kepp your nose in your own business, perform beyond what you think you are capable of and keep yourself challenged at all times. Volunteer for jobs at work and also volunteer to help your co-workers without bitching. These are the things that will get you farther in any job than any perfect shape or face ever will.

December 25 2009 at 8:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am an employer. I hire people all the time, and out of all the people that I employ, it seems that overweight people seem to want to be treated special. They make thier own weight problem a handicap for themselves. And in general they do not move as fast and perform as quick as the ones that are not overweight. They tire easily and usually do not take care of themself as the average weighted person. The truth is what it is. Like I said I have been an employer for 26 years and it has always been the same.

December 25 2009 at 8:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Maybe they figure if they pay us fatties less, we'll eat less because we don't have extra money to go to the drive-thru. If they pay us "Sara-Plain-and-Not-so-Tall's" less, we won't be out clubbing. See? They're actually looking out for us! Thanks!

December 25 2009 at 6:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Employers should be allowed to pay people accoring to their weight. For example, most people that work for the Government are fat, especially the women. That explains why things get processed so slowly such as in Medicare and Social Security. An obese person does not care about their looks and will feel the same about their job and people they are supposed to help. Michele Obama is another example since she does not do her job in the Whitehouse as far as meeting people etc.

December 25 2009 at 6:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i see a lot of experts on my tv that are overweight - i see this fat trend in the business world - most of the behind the scenes professional people are fat and ugly - pretty is only for the public eye and that is going fast - i am not pretty but i prefer to look at pretty - reality really does suck

December 25 2009 at 5:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Overweight people should be paid less because they are lazy.

December 25 2009 at 5:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
B.O Stinks

If you arent in control of your self why would anyone expect you to be in control of your work ? Mkaes sense to me to promote healthy people.

December 25 2009 at 3:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jack Karle

I don't see it that way. I got a post retirement job with Sears a few years ago. No one knew less about retail stuff than me, I'm a retired mechanical engineer. I wound up being the Store General Manager. My "edge" over my fellow, younger employees? I showed up for work everyday, early, and didn't care what shift I worked or if it was a weekend or holiday. I didn't bitch about the pay, I dressed presentable, and could treat coworkers and customers civilly.

December 25 2009 at 2:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jack Karle

Well, fat folks don't (can't) work as hard as non-fat folks. They have more sick days, and probably take longer lunches! Plus, being fat shows a certain lack of impulse control. Not good in the workplace.

December 25 2009 at 2:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's not just the overweight that are treated like that. It's anyone who isn't concidered "beautiful". Average looking people don't get paid as much as some tall stunning person with thick hair and great skin and features. It's not fair but it still happens. It's just as bad as people getting paid less because of the color of their skin or because they are in a wheelchair. How about that woman who was moved to the back of the store because she had ONE ARM. She was still a beautiful woman but yet the stupid management thought of her as flawed and didn't want her around customers. That was in London's Abracombie and Fitch store. Like anyone shops there anyhow.. still, she was treated poorly for missing a limb. She still did her job well. Ugh I hate how small minded people think. I also don't like being treated different or better just because I'm concidered pretty. It was always so embaressing to be out someplace and have special treatment from store owners when they weren't doing the same for my friends. It's unfair and because of that I don't shop at those stores anylonger. SHAME on people for treating others poorly just because of their looks. Try judging people on their deeds!

December 25 2009 at 2:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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