18 November 2018Last updated


Is your appearance ruining your career?

Recent studies suggest that beautiful people have better jobs, get promoted sooner and earn more. We examine the real value of the beauty premium – and where it leaves Plain Janes

By Aoife Stuart-Madge
8 Oct 2014 | 02:28 pm
  • Source:Shutterstock Image 1 of 2
  • Source:Shutterstock Image 2 of 2

Let’s face it, we’re all guilty of judging people by appearances, and in most cases – subconsciously or not – that judgement is faster than a blink of an eye. Recent studies from Princeton University say it actually takes as little as a 10th of
a second to form an impression of a stranger.

As the old adage goes, ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression,’ which is why most of us dress up for interviews, look polished for presentations and generally make an effort to look professional in the workplace.

And if you are lucky enough to be blessed with an aesthetically pleasing visage, you can reap the rewards of those instant judgements. According to the American Association for Psychological Science, “Mothers give more affection to attractive» babies. Teachers favour more attractive students and judge them as smarter. Attractive adults get paid more for their work and have better success in dating and mating. And juries are less likely to find attractive people guilty and recommend lighter punishments when they do.”

Professor Daniel Hamermesh from the University of Austin, Texas, is author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. He says, “It is very clear-cut. Better-looking people get paid more. The effects of beauty on pay are substantial. By now there are a number of studies, with the average among them showing that people in the top third of looks get about 12-15 per cent more pay with the otherwise same characteristics than do those in the bottom seventh of looks. The better-looking are also more likely to be employed than the bad-looking.”

Style over substance

But if you’re trying to get ahead in the workplace, how can you get people to judge you on your abilities, instead of your appearance? It’s a battle that women have been fighting for decades, and something that irks even the world’s most high-powered female execs. Take the recent cabinet reshuffle in the UK, which saw more females in government positions than ever before in British history. And yet much of the coverage of their appointment was discussions on what they were wearing, the length of their hemlines and their hairdos. Even the brightest female tech whizzes in Silicon Valley, including Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg are subject to style scrutiny, while Mark Zuckerberg can be taken seriously wearing his signature scruffy hoodie.

“As much as we want to think there isn’t a boys’ club, the Silicon Valley still feels very much run by men and there’s a difference in expectations,” says San Mateo-based image consultant Marina Sarmiento Feehan. “Women who rise to the top tend to be judged more, both by men and other women, and in order to succeed they do have to
dress better.”

Canadian executive coach Ray Williams says that beauty can even be a hindrance for some women. “This is more of an issue for women than men. Really beautiful women are often judged solely on their appearance, neglecting what other talents and abilities they may have,” he says.

Talking plainly

Aquarius’s resident psychologist Dr Saliha Afridi, managing director of The LightHouse Arabia explains, “There is some research that shows that too much beauty can actually be detrimental. Attractive men and women can experience social rejection. They are often seen as a threat and most colleagues will not extend a hand to help them in a time of need. It is also shown that attractive individuals are often harder to trust, are seen as being unintelligent, and are not taken seriously in discussions.”

In fact, some female tech-brains in Silicon Valley have reportedly taken to wearing flats and scruffy jeans in a bid to blend in and be taken more seriously by their male counterparts. “The perception in Silicon Valley is that if you dress well, you couldn’t possibly be smart, or you’re in PR but couldn’t possibly run a company,” notes American tech journalist Megan Garber, who has interviewed dozens of female tech execs.

Not a good tactic, says Dr Afridi, who warns that going to either extreme of the grooming spectrum will get you noticed for the wrong reasons. “It will become very apparent to everyone in the workplace if a person is spending more time on their looks than on their work or projects. Too little attention to grooming and appearance or too much of it – both communicate something to your colleagues and clients,” says Dr Afridi.

And there are, of course, pitfalls to relying on your looks to get ahead – especially when that beauty fades. “Women and men who have given a lot of preference to their looks and used their looks to get ahead will find themselves feeling very insecure and often obsessed with plastic surgery and other techniques to remain appearing youthful. Their self-esteem will plummet as they get older, and this will present itself in the workplace if looks were the only thing getting them ahead,” says Dr Afridi.

The X factor

When you are being judged in seconds, the best strategy is to look your personal best, if for no other reason than to make you feel more confident – a feeling that the beautiful people of the workplace have in spades. Executive coach Ray argues that it could actually be confidence and not beauty that is giving beautiful people the X factor – after all, they have the confidence to go after the high-paid jobs.

“This is correlated with attractive people often being chosen or being successful early in life, so they get reinforced with early success to go after more,” suggests Ray.

“People with high self-esteem and
self-confidence aim higher,” agrees Dr Afridi.
“It typically starts earlier. Teachers have been shown to give preference to children who are more attractive, thus, if a child is given preference and encouragement from early on in their life, they will have higher self-esteem and more self-worth—and they in turn will aim higher and be given more opportunities in life.”

But the good news is that you don’t have to be born a supermodel to aim high in your career. Confidence and self-belief can be even more powerful tools than beauty when it comes to self-advancement. A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that those who appeared more confident were thought to be more talented and competent at their jobs by their peers – regardless of how they looked.

So if you want the edge in your career, perhaps it’s time to channel some killer confidence. It’s a strategy that seems to be working for the new generation of self-made female entrepreneurs and start-up queens for whom the beauty bias does not apply. “The beauty bias is not an absolute, but there is evidence to show that attractive people in traditional jobs have an edge. When it comes to entrepreneurs and start-ups, this isn’t true,” says Ray.

It stands to reason that if you have the guts to take the leap and turn your career dream into a reality, as these self-made CEOs do, then you are not lacking in drive and confidence. And if beauty is irrelevant for them, it can be for you too. You just have to have the confidence to believe it.

A recent study from Webster University found that a direct, confident smile can cause your perceived attractiveness to soar, while research at the University of Melbourne
found self-confidence is the key determinant of workplace success. The upshot: if you
walk and talk like you look like Miranda Kerr, it really doesn’t matter what you actually
look like.

So if beauty and self-confidence are not mutually exclusive, it is possible to ooze charisma and go-getter confidence, even
if you aren’t aesthetically blessed. Look at Donald Trump, Alan Sugar and Bill Gates, who rely on charisma and risk-taking tendencies to lead a corporation.

The confidence gap

Unfortunately, if it is confidence that brings the promotions, high salaries and top jobs, women at both ends of the beauty spectrum have a long way to go. A recent study by the Institute of Leadership and Management in the UK found that half female managers experienced self-doubt as opposed to just a third of their male counterparts. Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of Women Don’t Ask, discovered in a study of business school students that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and that when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 per cent less money than men do.

What’s more, a further study from Cornell psychologist David Dunning and the Washington State University psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.

The reality is that it is not the beauty bias holding us back, but the confidence gap between the sexes. Sure, a pretty face might get your foot in the door, but without confidence and belief in your abilities, you won’t progress.

And the only people who can change the status quo are us. If you want the high-paid job – the one you know you can do just as well, if not better than a man – have the confidence to go for it. In the words of Donald Trump, “Confidence is a very important thing. But confidence isn’t something you just develop by saying ‘I’m going to do this or that.’ You really have to believe it.”

So how can we begin to channel some of that killer confidence our male counterparts seem to ooze? For starters, we need the focus to shift from what we’re wearing and how we look to our abilities. “It is important to always bring your best self to work—which we all know varies from day to day,” says Dr Afridi. “We should dress professionally, and that can also mean that we do not draw too much attention to what we look like, our different body parts, and what we wear. Too much make-up, too much perfume, clothes that are too revealing or too frumpy – all of these communicate what you think about yourself and about your looks to the person sitting across from you. A client should not remember what you wear or what you look like but rather they should remember what they learned or what they felt when they sat with you.”

Crack the beauty bias

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, co-authors of new book The Confidence Code, think its confidence, not looks holding women back. Here, their tips on channelling the confidence of a supermodel at the office.

1. Don’t over-think it.
Guessing and second guessing yourself actually keeps women from taking action. Be brave and go with your gut.

2. Don’t fear failure.
Try and see the positives in failing – it’s a chance to learn, plus it shows others you’ve been willing to give it a try.

3. Toughen up.
Women tend to carry criticism around, says Shipman. Thinking that your boss, colleagues and the rest of the world is still focussed on that one thing you did wrong will zap your confidence.

4. Leave your comfort zone.
If you are too determined to do everything right, you won’t have the confidence to take risks which might pay off dividends for your career.

5. Speak up.
Don’t start a sentence with ‘I think...’ state your opinion as fact, and don’t raise your voice at the end of a sentence like it’s a question. If it sounds like you are questioning yourself, others will question you too.


Have your say

We asked Aquarius readers whether they think looks makes a difference in the workplace

“Yes – in all professions”

E.J, 32, Dubai

“There are some jobs where looks are more important – such as cabin crew. But I think looks are important in most professions.”


Sass, 39, Dubai

“When I interview someone who hasn’t made much effort with their appearance, it says something negative about them.” 


“They shouldn’t”

R.T., 28, Dubai

“There are a lot of women in my work who dress up every day and the bosses seem to respond well to that. But I’m not going to feel pressured to wear heels to please my boss.”

By Aoife Stuart-Madge

By Aoife Stuart-Madge