Oh, dear. It's time to put away the contact lenses and get dowdied up: A new study published this month in the Journal of Applied Psychology has found that good looks can help a man rise to the top of the corporate ladder, but they don't help a woman at all.
It would be nice, of course, if looks and appearance didn't figure into these matters, but they do and we all know it. I knew a woman who worked as a copy girl at a newspaper some years ago and she came to work every day looking like she'd stepped out of a Chanel showroom. Her theory was that if she didn't look like a copy girl, pretty soon she wouldn't be one. And it worked. The best-dressed copy girl soon became the best-dressed reporter.
And we are all familiar with the adventures of Mary Cunningham at the Bendix Corp., adventures that might not have turned into such misadventures if she had been a plain, frumpy woman who had worked her way up to being the confidante of the CEO.
The new study, by Madeline E. Heilman and Melanie H. Stopeck of New York University, suggests that Mary Cunningham was headed for trouble on three counts: she was attractive, female and an overnight success. Her ability, according to the research, was immediately suspect.
Heilman and Stopeck arrived at their conclusions after conducting this test: They gave 113 working men and women the work history of an assistant vice-president at a midsized corporation who was either an attractive or unattractive male or female. The work histories of the assistant vicepresidents were depicted as being either normally paced rise to the top or very rapidly paced.
In the article in this month's Journal, they cite previous research showing that "attractiveness enhances gender characterizations. That is, an attractive woman is perceived to be more feminine and an attractive man is viewed to be more masculine than their less attractive counterparts. Because femininity and masculinity have a set of stereotypic traits and dispositions associated with them, those who are more gender-typed also are seen as possessing more of these stereotyped attributes."
Most top jobs, they say, are filled by men and "are believed to require uniquely masculine skills and talents for success. Consequently, the more an individual is viewed as having masculine attributes, the better the perceived fit between the individual's characteristics and the job requirements . . . . " and the better their chances for on-the-job success.
The 113 working men and women were asked to rate the degree to which ability, luck, effort, political know-how and relationships within the organization played a part in the careers of the assistant vicepresident whose resume they reviewed.
In analyzing the answers, the researchers found that the success of unattractive females was attributed more to ability while the success of attractive females was attributed more to political know-how and relationships. Attractive women were viewed as having less competence and integrity than unattractive women, while the opposite held true for male managers.
The researchers concluded that their findings "provide evidence that being attractive can have negative consequences for women managers, even when they clearly have been successful and reached the executive level. Their success was attributed less to ability, and they were consistently judged to be less capable than were unattractive women managers . . . . Simply put, they were most often believed to have gotten to where they were for reasons other than their skill and/or talent. These results, which document yet another way in which attractiveness can negatively affect women in the work world, also add to a growing body of literature illustrative of the negative bias produced by beauty."
The attractive male manager, however, has no such worries. "Our results also suggest that the beneficial consequences of good looks for male managers persist when they are successful. Their success was more strongly attributed to ability than was the success of less attractive males, and they also were viewed as more capable individuals."
The consequences of these perceptions do not bode well for the attractive woman manager, despite her success. The researchers concluded that "the unfavorable perceptions her attractiveness produce are no doubt likely to affect her credibility, her desirability as a superior, and her perceived legitimacy as a leader . . . . the specter of beautyism can be expected to follow the successful woman right up the corporate ladder."
The double standard, in other words, is alive and well.