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Getting Ahead at Work: Looks Really Do Matter

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What do you do before leaving for work in the morning? Do you change your outfit a few times and check your makeup? We all do. Is it because we realize, on some unconscious level, that people who are more physically attractive have an easier time getting ahead in their careers? 


That Smile Deserves a Raise
In her New York Times Magazine article, “Why Women Can’t Let Sarah Palin Go,” Lisa Belkin claims that the reason educated women resent the former vice-presidential candidate is that they want to believe they live in a meritocracy. In high school, when smart girls sit at home writing English papers and popping zits, imagining all the pretty, popular girls out at parties, their mothers console them with the thought that when they grew up, they’ll be the intelligent, successful ones, whereas those cheerleaders, for all their looks, will never amount to anything. 


Okay, Sarah Palin played basketball in high school; she wasn’t a cheerleader. But the former Miss Wasilla was pretty and popular. I’ve worked for years at being a writer; Sarah Palin has already made millions off her book, Going Rogue, despite her notoriously unfathomable syntax. 


Mom, you were wrong.


Looks do matter, even—maybe especially—in the workplace. According to research by Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle published in the Journal of Labor Economics, physically attractive people earn more per hour—about 5 percent on average—than their plain colleagues. And unattractive people earn 9 percent less per hour than their better-looking peers. When you crunch the numbers, this means that for average-looking people earning $40,000, their prettiest coworkers would make $42,000 and their least attractive colleagues would bank only $36,400.


Good-looking workers also tend to get more promotions, since they attract more positive attention than do others. Most bosses may not even realize they notice one employee more than another because of a glowing smile or—ahem—a large bosom, but they do.


Fair or not, there’s nothing explicitly illegal about discrimination based on physical characteristics, as long as it doesn’t touch the legislated areas of religion, race, sexual orientation, and disability. Unless you live in Washington, D.C., or Santa Cruz, California, an employer is completely within his rights to pass you over for a job based on your appearance. The laws that forbid other kinds of discrimination fail to cover prejudicial or preferential treatment based on looks, says James McDonald Jr., managing partner at the Irvine office of the employment-law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP.


Ready for Your Close-up?
The government hasn’t expanded discrimination laws to include physical characteristics because in certain fields, judging someone by her looks is accepted and sometimes even necessary. We expect actors, singers, television anchors, and other figures in the public eye to look their best. 


Since Richard Nixon’s infamous 1960 television appearance sans makeup arguably lost him the U.S. presidency to the debonair John F. Kennedy, Americans have notably elected attractive presidential candidates. With the expansion of media to a twenty-four-hour cycle, more politicians appear on televisions and blogs. Will we continue to vote for faces, even at the expense of facts? 


Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful
Is it a choice we have to make: brains or beauty? In her article, Belkin writes about how smart, educated women jumped down Palin’s throat when she hit the scene. This wasn’t the woman they could get behind, who would help them break the glass ceiling. And it was not so much because of her conservative political beliefs—her pro-life stance, her hawkish invectives against Barack Obama’s “palling around with terrorists”—as because we could so easily dismiss her as just a pretty face. (Of course, she didn’t make that too hard for us, you betcha!) No, we wanted someone with a good head on her shoulders, someone with an Ivy League education, someone in a pantsuit. 


As hard as it is to be an ugly duckling, beauty comes at a 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.” We can extrapolate Farrell’s idea to say that other women are jealous of their more attractive peers, whom they perceive as being preferred based solely on appearance. Many of us felt this way about Palin, and we feel the same envy for female coworkers whom we see being promoted ahead of us because of physical attributes we don’t possess. A beautiful woman can find herself isolated from the allegiances that are invaluable to playing the game of office politics. Without that kind of support system, corporate culture becomes a much lonelier place. 


Positive attention also comes with negative aspects—sexual harassment is more of a concern for very attractive workers, both male and female, than it is for those who are more average looking. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Rush Limbaugh commented that Sarah Palin made you “wish she was single.” Similar comments, especially when they come from colleagues or superiors, are inappropriate, create discomfort in the workplace, and trivialize accomplishments. 


Five Features of Attractive (And Successful) People
We shouldn’t judge people based on their looks, but we perform that judgment so quickly that we don’t even notice it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there are five general qualities that make for a stellar physical resume, according to James Houran, PhD, who writes the “Office Hours with Dr. Jim” column for Online Dating Magazine


1. Clear skin and lustrous hair, since these are signs of youth and good health. Even if we make a personal decision not to have children, the little monkey man or woman inside us tells us to choose the youngest and healthiest partner among our potential mates, who’ll give us the greatest chance of making lots of babies and perpetuating the species.


2. In both sexes, a symmetrical face and body are indicative of good physical and psychological health and the absence of genetic abnormalities, another indication that future potential offspring will be similarly well formed, with no birth defects. For both men and women, the most attractive facial and body features are “average” ones, neither too large nor too small.


3. Attractive men tend to be tall and possess square jaws, wide brows, broad shoulders, strong arms, defined chests, and a waist-to-hip ratio of about 1:0. These attributes indicate that he is healthy, strong, and a good protector.


4. Attractive women possess plump, rosy lips, full breasts, round buttocks, and a waist-to-hip ratio of about 0:7, all of which indicate that she is capable of producing healthy children.


5. Nonphysical attributes also come into play when considering overall appearance. Hygiene and presentation show others how you feel about yourself, and therefore how they should also value you. A smile, good eye contact, and an open stance also project self-assuredness and warmth.


It’s all about confidence, baby! According to researchers Markus Mobius and Tanya Rosenblat, how you feel about yourself affects how others perceive you by about 20 percent in either direction. So no matter what you feel you look like on the outside, lift that chin up and shine.


Beautiful on the Inside
When my mother used to tell me I was beautiful on the inside, I assumed she was just saying something to make me feel better about my chubby thighs and spotty face. But she was talking about the power of attraction that comes from knowing your own worth. Because Sarah Palin projected confidence the night she announced her vice-presidential campaign bid, she became an overnight success. You, too, can possess that kind of charisma, even if you have to fake it at first. Just remember, while looks and charm may get your foot in the door, you can’t count on them to carry you the whole way.

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