The Influence of Appearance Discrimination on Career Development

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In this society people are discriminated against based on their physical attractiveness. This form of discrimination results in increased income and opportunities for taller, in shape, good-looking workers and lower pay, an increased chance of poverty, and reduced opportunities for shorter, fatter, less good-looking workers. Legislation and actions by federal agencies may alleviate some of the burden borne by the unattractive members of society, but the problem may be too deeply rooted in culture and instinct to be eliminated.

The Existence of Appearance-based Discrimination

Discrimination based on physical appearance may, at first glance, seem almost trivial—a shallow and boorish act committed by one who failed to learn the lessons taught in elementary school about not judging books by their covers. Such discrimination is nonetheless a real phenomenon with significant effects on the lives of those discriminated against. Discrimination based on the various components of physical appearance including height, weight, and general pleasantness or unpleasantness of appearance results in premia for those blessed with certain attributes, and in penalties for persons failing to measure up to the given standard as shown in a number of studies.

In a study published in 1994, Drs. Jeff Biddle and Daniel Hamermesh compared the results of three surveys, two of them Canadian and one American. The surveys were conducted by government agencies in their respective countries and consisted both of questions asked regarding the income, occupation, and background of interviewees and of ratings of the attractiveness of interviewees by their interviewers. The attractiveness of the interviewees was rated on a five-point scale ranging from "homely" to "handsome or beautiful", with stops in between for "below average", "average", and "above average". Biddle and Hamermesh found that the combined results of the surveys "make it clear that there is a significant penalty for bad looks among men."1

Biddle and Hamermesh's 1994 study showed that the 9 percent of working men who were rated by interviewers as either "homely" or "below average" in physical appearance also received 9 percent less than average in terms of hourly earnings. By contrast, the 32 percent of men who were rated "above average" or "handsome" by interviewers earned 5 percent more than the average for men in the sample. Interestingly, the study showed that women, although also rewarded and penalized for their looks, were not penalized at the same level as the men. The most attractive women earned only a 4 percent premium, whereas the least attractive 8 percent of women in the workforce suffered only a 5 percent penalty.2

In a second study published in 1998, Biddle and Hamermesh focused their attention on lawyers graduating from a "selective" but unidentified law school. In the law school study, panels of individuals were shown pictures taken of students at the time they matriculated to the law school and asked to rate them on a five-point scale. When the ratings given to the male students in the 1970's age cohort were graphed, it was found that, one year after graduation, a difference of two standard-deviations in a student's appearance was worth a 3 percent increase in salary.3 Five years after graduation, the same difference was worth a 10 percent increase and, after a lawyer became established in his profession, the difference was worth 12 percent.4 After fifteen years of practicing law, each increase of one standard deviation in a lawyer's appearance was worth $3,200 for lawyers in the public sector and $10,200 for lawyers in private practice.5

In addition to discrimination based on general attractiveness, discrimination based on weight and height are addressed in an article by Jennifer Laabs in Personnel Journal. Laabs quotes a study by David Blanchflower which found that when persons reached their teens and got their first jobs, discrimination had already begun to take its toll. Blanchflower's study found that the heaviest 10 percent of 16-year-old girls earned 7.4 percent less than slimmer peers and the heaviest 1 percent earned 12 percent less. While weight was not found to play a significant factor in the earnings of teenaged boys, each four-inch increase in a boy's height corresponded to a 2 percent increase in his earnings. Height did not seem to play a factor in the earnings of girls. To show the persistence of discrimination, Laabs quotes a second study which appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing that, among other things, "[s]hort men were 10% more likely to be poor and earned about $3,000 less than men a foot taller." 6

The Influence of Attractiveness Discrimination on Diversity

Having seen that persons are indeed discriminated against based on appearance, one might next ask how this discrimination relates to diversity in the workplace. The first and most obvious answer is that, like racial, sexual, and religious bias, discrimination based on elements of appearance not directly related to job performance impacts workplace diversity by unnecessarily limiting the pool of applicants for a job. In spite of a "famous" study by Lewis Terman which reputedly showed a positive association between IQ and physical attractiveness, there remain many short, overweight, or unattractive but otherwise talented and skilled people whose abilities and insights are at best underutilized by and at worst lost to discriminatory organizations.7 Imagine if Janet Reno, Madeline Albright, or Abraham Lincoln had been judged purely on the basis of their looks.

Appearance discrimination also impacts the workplace when it overlaps and reinforces the stereotypes associated with other forms of discrimination such as sexism and racism. A study of the relationships of gender and attractiveness biases to hiring decisions speculated that appearance bias may keep some women out of traditionally male jobs. According to the study, attractive women are perceived as being more feminine and delicate than their less attractive peers and therefor less capable of performing certain tasks.8

The Impact of Discrimination on Workers

The penalties in terms of wages listed above should make at least some of the ramifications of appearance discrimination on workers obvious. Other ramifications may not be so obvious. Laabs suggests that one reason why overweight teenagers who remain overweight into adulthood continue to be paid less than their svelte counterparts may be that earlier discrimination damages their self-esteem, resulting in lower performance over the course of their lifetimes.9 A number of sources also make note of the fact that unattractive or overweight women are either less likely to find a mate, or more likely to find a mate of low quality.10

Discrimination and the Law

Although most sources agree that there are potential or actual legal concerns related to appearance discrimination, there is some disagreement over whether and how much the courts and legislatures should be able to do to counteract such discrimination. In an opinion piece in Business Week, Robert Barro argues passionately that there should be no interference whatsoever in the market's valuation of physical appearance, but he appears to be virtually alone in making that argument.11 Over the last quarter-century, the government has moved increasingly towards acting on appearance discrimination.

Although the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is sometimes cited as a the first piece of legislation affecting discrimination against overweight persons, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is generally listed as the main cause for legal concern on the part of employers. The ADA "defines an individual with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record or such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment…."12 The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has also "asserted that obesity…should be regarded as a protected disability under federal law."13 The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the ADA, and state and local laws have been successfully used by obese persons who felt they had been discriminated against, as in the cases of John Rossi who sued under a California state law and Bonnie Cook who sued under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in Rhode Island.14

Although it has not happened yet, Stephen Crow and Dinah Payne argue that, given current and past social and legal trends and the vague language of the ADA, it is possible that anti-discrimination protection may be extended beyond the obese to the physically unattractive.15 Crow and Payne suggest that a "disfigurement", although not necessarily disabling by itself, becomes disabling in view of a "public perception of impairment." The decisions of the EEOC regarding how to define "impairment" and "disfigurement" and how to interpret the ADA will apparently be the determining factors in when and if protection is extended.16

The Future of Appearance Discrimination

Appearance discrimination will not go away. Even if those elements in our society which encourage the worship of beauty could be removed, the advantages which attractive people have in their personal and professional relations would not go away. According to Laabs, "[s]tudies consistently show that babies are more attracted to the faces of people who rate higher on the 'beautiful' or 'handsome' scale than to those who rate Iowa. [sic]"17 Obviously the problem goes deeper than people being trained to have certain aesthetic preferences based on the bombardment of images coming from the mass media. Whether or not discrimination of this sort can be eliminated, it may be possible to ameliorate it in certain situations.

In the working environment, the penalties and premia handed out to workers based on appearance seem to come from two directions: down from management, and up from consumers. When the problem originates with management, both governmental and non-governmental action may be possible.

A study by Marlowe, Schneider, and Nelson indicated that managerial discrimination based on attractiveness was at least partially related to the managers level of experience. When managers were asked to rank pictures of four candidates for a job from "most likely to become a vice president" to "least likely", an attractive candidate was selected by new managers 73 percent of the time, by moderately experienced managers 65 percent of the time, and by highly experienced managers 47 percent of the time. The authors of the study suggested that more experienced managers may be less swayed by attractiveness because they had more seen more qualified but unattractive managers as well as more unqualified but attractive managers than their less experienced counterparts.18 The reduction in attractiveness bias with experience suggests that bias among new managers might be reduced by introducing them to a broader spectrum of personnel.

While actions like that suggested above may help to reduce bias or its impact in some companies, other companies will take no action and will be sued for discriminating according to physical attractiveness. As a result of the court cases which will no doubt arise in coming years, the courts and the EEOC will be asked to rule on the legality of such discrimination. While the courts may rule attractiveness discrimination illegal and try to enforce their decisions, the issue is so tied up with personal tastes and preferences that it is questionable how discrimination could be proven in many cases.

In their study of lawyers, Biddle and Hamermesh found that, although there were disparities between the income of attractive and unattractive lawyers, there were no disparities between the income of lawyers working for themselves and those employed by a larger firm. According to Biddle and Hamermesh, the similarity in incomes indicates that at least some discrimination comes not so much from managerial bias as it does from bias on the part of clients.19 When discrimination comes from customer choice, it is doubtful anything non-Orwellian can be done.


Discrimination according to physical appearance, whether based on height, weight or general attractiveness is a fact of life for all persons. This form of discrimination results in increased income and opportunities for attractive persons and lower pay, an increased chance of poverty, and reduced opportunities for those considered unattractive. While legislation such as the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADA may help to alleviate some forms of appearance discrimination in the workplace, it is questionable whether they can provide a remedy for all forms or in all situations and whether they should even try. Based on the behavior of presumably culturally unbiased infants, it appears that on some level appearance bias is inherent in human beings and therefore unsolvable.


1Biddle, Jeff, & Hamermesh, Daniel. (1994) Beauty and the Labor Market The American Economic Review. 84(5) p 1186.back
2Biddle & Hamermesh. Beauty and the Labor Market. p 1186.back
3Biddle, Jeff, & Hamermesh, Daniel. (1998) "Beauty, Productivity and Discrimination: Lawyers Looks and Lucre" Journal of Labor Economics. 16(1). p. 184.back
4Biddle, Jeff, & Hamermesh, Daniel. (1998) "Beauty, Productivity and Discrimination." pp. 185 – 187.back
5Biddle, Jeff, & Hamermesh, Daniel. (1998) "Beauty, Productivity and Discrimination." p. 193.back
6Laabs, Jennifer J. (1995 Dec.) "Does Image Matter?" Personnel Journal. 74(12). pp48 – 53. In ABI/Inform Database, Ovid. [p. 3] Throughout the paper, bold page numbers in brackets indicate the pagination used in the database copy of the article rather than in the original print version. back
7Seligman, Daniel. (1996) "Lucky Lookers." Fortune. 133(3). pp117-119. In ABI/Inform Database, Ovid.
[p. 1] I was unable to find any other references to the study by Terman mentioned in Seligman's article and remain skeptical of its reputed findings.back
8Marlowe, Cynthia; Schneider, Sandra, & Nelson, Carnot. "Gender & Attractiveness Biases in Hiring Decisions: Are More Experienced Managers Less Biased?" Journal of Applied Psychology 81(1) p. 12.back
9Laabs. [p. 3]back
10Laabs. [p. 3] ; Biddle & Hamermesh. Beauty and the Labor Market pp. 1188—1189.back
11Barro, Robert J. (1998, March 16) "So You Want to Hire the Beautiful. Well, Why Not? " Business Week. p18.back
12Crow, Stephen & Payne, Dinah. "Affirmative Action for a Face Only a Mother Could Love?" Journal of Business Ethics. 11(11). pp869 – 875. In ABI/Inform Database, Ovid. [p. 2]back
13Laabs. [p. 6]back
14Laabs. [pp. 5-6]back
15Crow & Payne. [p. 2]back
16Crow & Payne. [p. 10]back
17Laabs. [p. 2] Although the ABI/Inform database is extremely convenient, it should be noted that the text contains a surprising number of typos. Presumably "Iowa" should be "lower".back
18Marlowe, Schneider, & Nelson. p. 18.back
19Biddle & Hamermesh. Beauty, Productivity, and Discrimination. p. 197.back

Works Cited

Barro, Robert J. (1998, March 16) So You Want to Hire the Beautiful. Well, Why Not? Business Week. p18.
Biddle, Jeff, & Hamermesh, Daniel. (1994) Beauty and the Labor Market The American Economic Review. 84(5) pp1174 – 1194.
Biddle, Jeff, & Hamermesh, Daniel. (1998)Beauty, Productivity and Discrimination: Lawyers Looks and Lucre Journal of Labor Economics. 16(1). pp172 – 201
Crow, Stephen & Payne, Dinah. Affirmative Action for a Face Only a Mother Could Love? Journal of Business Ethics. 11(11). pp869 – 875. In ABI/Inform Database, Ovid.
Laabs, Jennifer J. (1995 Dec.) Does Image Matter? Personnel Journal. 74(12). pp48 – 53. In ABI/Inform Database, Ovid.
Marlowe, Cynthia; Schneider, Sandra, & Nelson, Carnot. Gender & Attractiveness Biases in Hiring Decisions: Are More Experienced Managers Less Biased? Journal of Applied Psychology 81(1) pp11 – 21.
Seligman, Daniel. (1996) Lucky Lookers. Fortune. 133(3). pp117-119. In ABI/Inform Database, Ovid.