To be Pretty or Not to Be: The Psychology of Beauty in the Workplace

“I don’t know what everyone’s talking about, that outfit doesn’t make you look like a hooker.”

– Xander (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Pretty girls” in the workplace has been a conversation headliner the last few months in different media sites and in office spaces. Just the other day on there was a piece on the not-so pretty girl and her need to find a “benefactor”.  Back in December, right before Christmas, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that an Iowa dentist acted legally in firing a long-time assistant because he – and his wife – viewed the fired “pretty” married mother as a threat to their marriage.  The court ruled that employees can fire staff they see as an “irresistible attraction,” even if they have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Yes, you read and heard correctly! If you are pretty through nature or nurture (i.e. one takes care of oneself through diet, exercise, and hygiene) one can be punished by the opposite sex OR by the same sex out of pure jealousy and paranoia. Whoa! This is actually a longstanding problem in the American workforce, often referred to as the “jealous wife syndrome.” This seems to occur more readily when an attractive female is working closely with a married man.   See, here’s the thing, in general, American law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, religion, age and disability, but NOT appearance.  Appearance is a free-for-all in the wild confines of the American office.

However, haven’t we also been told that being good-looking is akin to having social capital?   According to a widely touted Newsweek survey, 61% of hiring managers ( most of them men) said it would be an advantage for a woman to wear clothing showing off her figure at work. Furthermore, Newsweek also asked the hiring managers to rank the top nine character traits they sought in an employee in order of importance, appearance came in third, right behind experience (No. 1) and confidence (No. 2).  They say the first two minutes in which you meet someone determines whether you end up liking them. Guess what you notice in the first two minutes: it ain’t brains, I tell ya (I mean you could wear a shirt that says I’ve got brains or a play on E=MC2).  According to research published in the Journal of Labor Economics (Hamermesh & Biddle) physically attractive people earn more per hour—about 5% on average—than their so-called “plain” colleagues. But get this, unattractive (so-called ugly) people earn 9% less per hour than their better-looking peers. Ouch, that hits the pocket-book big time! What’s a girl to do: be pretty get fired for being tempting. Be plain (or worse ugly) and earn less money and have less to spend on fashionable clothes or plastic surgery-what a vicious cycle.

Have you heard of the Blade Runner that killed his “model” girlfriend? Early on Valentine’s Day morning, Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympian who is arguably South Africa’s biggest Olympic (maybe all sport) star, shot through a bathroom door at his home in Pretoria and killed his “model” girlfriend, 29-year-old model and law school graduate Reeva Steenkamp.  He is called the Blade Runner because he runs races with J-shaped carbon-fiber prosthetics called the “Flex-Foot Cheetah.”  That’s besides the point. I think you got what I was trying to get at, right? In the news the headline always includes the word “model” and then they go on to show her in past photos with various model-like poses. Lest you believe I am making this up (you would never think that), here is a link to a CNN article on the day Mr. Pistorius was granted bail: So, appearance is not only important in the workplace but also in terms of whether your death gets media coverage: pretty girls can be fired but they can get all the glamorous news coverage as well.  In a classic social psychology experiment out on the street, researchers (Dabbs & Stokes, 1975) found that pretty (attractive) people are given more space to walk on the streets.  In a way pretty people are like Moses in being able to part the seas of pedestrians.

I think we need to be clear as to what is meant by “Pretty” Girl in the workplace. First, there is the literal one. The girl is pretty by most standards. She may not be much more than that. Then there is the one that may or may not be pretty (there’s debate) but she projects herself as such and is paraded as such. Recently, someone clarified to me that type of girl is more “precocious” and yes, we are actually talking about adult women in the workplace and not tiara-wearing toddlers. Hmpf? Then there is the guy that is treated like a pretty girl (despite looks) and is paraded to and from as well. You then have the brainy (I should be wearing glasses) pretty girl. She is pretty and referred to as such but she actually has a big, big brain that seems to be in competition with her looks.  Note, however, that all of these pretty girls at some point have been known to wear a garish or perhaps slightly good-time/party girl outfit in the workplace.  To continue, there are the pretty girls that don’t act pretty and thus don’t get invited to any events.  Then then there are the girls that just aren’t pretty (the ones that truly seem to need a benefactor).

The thing to realize is that these labels are not static. All the pretty girls listed above are “starter wives” just to be discarded when the next pretty girl phenom comes along. Sometimes we then feel sorry for these discarded pretty girls but in no way should they get sympathy as they often cultivated that status and reaped the rewards for some time. The pretty girls with a brain that use the girl brain power can actually get very far in the workplace. But, there always comes a time (perhaps daily but at least weekly) where she is reminded she is a woman and that she is lusted after in some way.  It can be subtle in that “wow, that is a really pretty dress and sexy shoes” or it can be outright “I’d sleep with you in my next life.”   Sometimes, the brainy pretty girl can feel like Pris in the movie “Blade Runner” whereby Pris is a “basic pleasure model” replicant. See, here is the thing. A pretty brainy girl can be treated or thought of as a sexbot but she can also humanize others to the power of brains; the way Pris’ relationship with Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer’s only great role) was shown to be a symbol of an underlying humanity in the replicants that the humans seemed to actually be missing.

As hard as it is salary-wise to be someone perceived as ugly or plain, beauty comes at a psychological workplace price. Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Are the Way They Are, writes that because men assume women use their looks to get what they want, they are jealous of what they perceive as “beauty power.”  Men, hate it when you flirt with other men in the workplace or group meeting, because they feel you are undermining the power differentials in the group exchange. There is also the “mean girls” syndrome that manifest itself in job interviews when a girl interviews another pretty girl.  Do you recall when during the 2008 presidential campaign, Rush Limbaugh commented that Sarah Palin made you “wish she was single.” Nothing irks a brainy pretty girl more!  Such a comment can create discomfort in the workplace and trivialize accomplishments. Did you know that while women who wear so-called “suitable” amounts of makeup are rewarded with higher likeability among co-workers and bosses, they often report diminished credibility as well for projecting an overtly feminine look? I have seen that first-hand whereby a made up daily face in the workplace makes people think that pretty girl is just all show. As Xander noted in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, people may say you look like a “hooker.”  It is as if wearing makeup is seen as putting on a dog and pony show. If you are going to wear makeup, you better bring it brain-wise.  You cannot sit quietly in a room, you cannot make nonsensical noise that you think is gonna pass as an intelligent or informed comment. If you wear makeup, heels, and speak in formulas and are funny, you will be the star of the workplace circus. Note that any random formula works. My frequently used, favorite one is B = P x E (behavior is a product of the person by the environment).  However, remember despite the brain, you will still hear from others how your sexiness is a major magnet or distraction.

At the end of the day, is it a choice we have to make: brains or beauty?  No. It is not. Although, it is gauche to say it, you will have to use your sexiness to your advantage.  Perceptions and jealousy of “beauty power” be damned.

14 replies »

  1. Amazed at this Supreme Court ruling. Not surprised that supreme court judges are bigots, but can’t believe that the International Court of Human Rights hasn’t gotten involved. I used to be fairly pretty, but don’t have all the issues that come with it any more. Once I turned 40, I became invisible to the opposite sex and am free to behave in any way I wish without anyone caring or even noticing. Ageing has its compensations.


  2. The Iowa Supreme Court case is outrageous. To avoid the problem, they should never have hired her which would have been unfortunate for a different reason, still based on appearance over substance. It’s a kind of trap. The choice is not always as simple as Pepsi vs. Coke!

    To your formula, a counter-offer:
    P = C * A


    We’d all love it if the effect of A were low … unless we’re the sexy one of the bunch.


  3. Very interesting article. 41 year old woman here.

    I quickly learned when entering the professional work force that if I wanted to be taken seriously I had to downplay my attractiveness, and I’m not super attractive. However if I wanted to get ahead I couldn’t wear the short skirts I loved, or my vast collection of insanely high heels. Oh also forget the cherry red lips … most people had issues focusing on the words. Now I’m not hot, I’m just a normal woman who looks after herself and can wear make up quite well.

    I work with computers and code and lovely “smart” things, but in the early days of my career I started on reception. The outfits I preferred were amazing for that line of work when I was 20. However, not so much when talking to managers and other IT specialists when I moved into programming. In those cases its important to look like a “geek” and not a mini skirt wearing red head with a penchant for patent leather heels.

    There are good examples of attractive smart women in popular culture, although you often find that linked with impossible and airbrushed beauty. While real world examples like Veronica Belmont and Felicia Day are smart women that inspire us all. The are also beautiful and real human beings inside and out.

    The terrifying part is when you see smart young women stating that they are not “feminists” even when they are working in male dominated industries. Then you see those same smart women battling against sexism. It is massively infuriating.


    • Thanks for sharing your story!
      Its an interesting situation you mention.
      I know many many women, who are quite successful, that disavow feminism. A bit of cognitive dissonance and a bit of a generational difference.


  4. Hi psychologistmimi. Being somebody who has been married and divorced twice lived alone for many years I still respect and admire the female sex of this world. and wish them well. I am but an observer of life now! Thank you for liking my poem Deep Truth! Peace and Best Wishes for your New Year. The Foureyed Poet.


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