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Outside In: The Beauty Paradox

Good looks are a boon—but attractive female leaders might not be sitting pretty.

“Is this woman Too Hot To Be a Banker?”

Whether or not Debrahlee Lorenzana, a former business banker at a New York Citibank branch, was fired for being distractingly attractive to her male colleagues and superiors, the above Village Voice headline about her experience reveals a disturbing possibility: Women can be seen as too good-looking for certain high-powered roles.

Decades of research have shown that gifts from the beauty gods produce a “halo effect,” wherein the beautiful are treated more kindly and are perceived as more socially skilled, mentally healthy, and intelligent than their less attractive counterparts. Unsurprisingly, they achieve more career success. But for women who are easy on the eyes, there may be a harsh reckoning in the upper echelons of their fields. The “beauty is beastly” hypothesis posits that in male-dominated professions and leadership positions, pretty women may actually be at a disadvantage.

In 2012, a German study looked at how attractiveness interacts with different leadership styles and found that highly attractive women inspire less loyalty and trust compared with male leaders and unattractive female leaders. This is especially the case when they practice “transformational” leadership, which emphasizes innovation, a shared vision among workers, and support for employees’ personal growth (as opposed to a “transactional” style that focuses on task completion driven by rewards and punishments). The transformational style is widely regarded as more effective, and yet, when attractive women employ this approach, a backlash occurs, the researchers found. Beauty strengthens the basic biased perception that women are too feminine to lead, especially if they are adopting a style characterized by stereotypically feminine techniques, such as being charismatic and increasing communication among coworkers.

“There is a prototype for a leader, and that is more in line with the ‘masculine’ qualities of being agentic, decisive, self-confident, and assertive, so women are always at a disadvantage when in a leadership position,” says Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College. “But more attractive women may be further from that prototype than less attractive, more masculine-looking women.”

Beauty might be particularly beastly for women going after highly masculine jobs. Whereas attractiveness benefited men seeking traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine jobs, a 2010 study found, it hurt women applying for a masculine job, such as prison guard. Once women have scored a position, their attractiveness provides a boost only when the job is nonmanagerial. Yet attractiveness seems to have no effect on performance evaluations of men.

“We have a conception of a beautiful woman, and ‘leader’ does not usually fit into that,” says Lorri Sulpizio, Ph.D., coordinator of the Women’s Leadership Academy at the University of San Diego.

Marissa Mayer—a rare female computer scientist, one of Google’s first employees and, as of 2012, Yahoo’s CEO—would seem to have escaped the “beauty is beastly” maxim. But when she posed splayed across a lounge chair, upside down, for Vogue ’s September issue, she was sharply criticized for emphasizing her good looks and love of fashion. (Others celebrated her willingness to embrace her feminine side and sense of style, and pointed out that male CEOs who pose next to their yachts or Maseratis are not generally attacked for undermining themselves professionally.)

Sulpizio muses that because a woman’s social worth is so strongly tied to her body, Mayer herself may have felt the need to show the world that in addition to her many skills and talents, she’s rich in the currency of female beauty. Among the smartest and most seasoned women Sulpizio coaches, body-image issues still occupy mental space and spark anxiety.

Women who have complained that their colleagues “hate them because they’re beautiful” now also have a bit of empirical support. April Phillips, Ph.D., a psychologist at Columbus State University, found that women receiving an apology were less forgiving when the female apologizer was attractive.

What are eye-catching aspiring leaders to do? At best, they will learn to pick and choose among the most effective leadership qualities, whether those qualities happen to be stereotypically masculine or feminine. “To express confidence and competence, women need to speak with certainty, stand tall, and demonstrate an ability to listen and be present,” says Sulpizio. Effective leaders will also be adept at gauging their industry’s organizational culture so that they can be savvy about melding their own style and values with the requirements of their position.

As for Marissa Mayer, the public has harshly judged her leadership (her decision to forbid telecommuting was widely seen as damaging to working parents) as well as her provocative posing. But a survey on a job-search site reports that 84 percent of Yahoo employees approve of her. The most-cited reasons for the collective thumbs up? The free-snack policy Mayer instituted and the 73 percent rise in Yahoo’s stock price. Sometimes pretty is as pretty does.