The disturbing reason people don’t trust attractive women in the workplace

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Moya Crockett
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The pressure on women's appearance in the workplace: research

A new study suggests beautiful businesswomen are viewed with suspicion. In an appearance-obsessed world, it almost seems as though women can’t win, says Stylist’s Moya Crockett.

Most of the time, I love being a woman. But at least once a week, I read something that makes me wish I could slough off my femaleness like a snake shedding its skin. This week, that something is a new piece of research published in the academic journal Sex Roles, which suggests that beautiful businesswomen tend to be seen as less trustworthy, less truthful and more worthy of being fired than women of average attractiveness.

God, I find this study unspeakably depressing – and not because I’m an exceptionally beautiful businesswoman. No: it’s bleak because it highlights the narrowness of the aesthetic tightrope that women are often required to walk in the workplace. Previous studies have suggested that attractive people of both genders are more likely to be invited to job interviews, receive more job offers and are generally wealthier and more successful than people who aren’t quite so gorgeous. One 2016 Harvard University study also found that women who try to make themselves more conventionally attractive by wearing some make-up (but not too much) are considered more likeable, competent and trustworthy in the workplace than those who go barefaced.

This is obviously outrageously unfair, given that – in the vast majority of industries – a woman’s ability or willingness to conform to traditional beauty standards has nothing to do with her capacity to do a job well. But if average-looking women lose out on career opportunities to those who are more conventionally gorgeous, and beautiful businesswomen are viewed with ruthless suspicion by those around them, as this new research suggests, where does that leave us? Essentially, we’re stuck in the middle, trying to be the visual equivalent of Goldilocks: not too pretty, not too plain. And that, to put it mildly, is infuriating. 

Women are often required to walk a tightrope in how they present themselves at work 

For this latest study, researchers at Washington State University and the University of Colorado took images of “professional women” from Google and ranked them by attractiveness, using feedback from users of an online crowdsourcing platform. (It’s worth remembering here that conventional notions about what constitutes an attractive face are often influenced by Western – that is, white – beauty ideals.) They then presented participants in the study with fake news reports about redundancies in various different industries, including those perceived as being male-dominated (for example, the tech industry) and traditionally feminine (e.g. the healthcare sector).

In the fake news reports, the redundancies were announced by fictional employees – some male, some female – of varying levels of seniority. Each of the articles featured a photo of the employee who had supposedly announced the layoffs. And regardless of their title or industry, attractive women were consistently seen as less truthful than women who weren’t considered conventionally good-looking, supporting the myth of the ‘femme fatale’: the idea that beautiful women will also be unreliable and deceitful. This pattern held true over four separate experiments.

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“Highly attractive women can be perceived as dangerous and that matters when we are assessing things like how much we trust them and whether we believe that what they are saying is truthful,” said Leah Sheppard, an assistant professor of management in the WSU Carson College of Business, who was the lead author on the paper.

Fascinatingly – and dispiritingly – Sheppard’s research also gives us a clue as to why attractive women may be viewed with suspicion: other people’s insecurities. In two separate experiments, researchers used what’s known as a “prime” – a suggestion deliberately designed to put participants in an emotional state that may affect their point of view. They asked some participants to think about a time they felt sexually secure in a relationship, and others to think about a time they felt sexually insecure. Those participants who were primed to feel sexually secure didn’t see the attractive women in the fake news stories in a negative light. But those who felt sexually insecure tended to view the attractive women as less truthful, and even said they thought they deserved to be fired. 

Trying to change your appearance to suit other people will always be a losing battle 

Sheppard acknowledged that the results of her study show the double-bind that women find themselves in when considering how to present themselves in the workplace. There are, she said, “two duelling stereotypes here. You have the ‘what is beautiful is good’ stereotype, meaning that in general attractive people should fare better across their lifespan.”

While this is “generally true”, Sheppard said, “it becomes a bit more nuanced when we look at gender. For women there are certain contexts in which they don’t seem to benefit from their beauty.”

If you want to go and scream out of the window for a bit, you have my permission. Because it’s difficult to know what to do with this information, as grimly intriguing as it is. We live in a world that puts a suffocating premium on female beauty, then tells us that people won’t like us in a professional context if we’re too good-looking. Some people will assume we’re better at our job if we present in a conventionally attractive way; others will be mean and distrustful if they perceive us as too beautiful. One option is gross, the other is upsetting. Either way, women lose out.

But fortunately, there are also many people in the world who really don’t care what a person looks like in the workplace, so long as their teeth are brushed and their clothes are professional. And ultimately, trying to make yourself more or less beautiful to suit other people’s ill-conceived prejudices – or assuage their insecurities – is a losing battle.

So present yourself in whatever way suits your office dress code while still making you feel comfortable and confident, whether that means donning a power suit, wearing your natural hair or going make-up free. Because you can’t always control what other people think of you – but you can shape how good you feel about yourself.

Images: Doctor Macro/Getty Images  / Lead image design: Alessia Armenise