Looks Do Matter, Especially for Women, and Also at Work

Women whose appearance is evaluated seem less competent, research shows.

Posted Sep 07, 2018

In 1921, what is now known as Miss America began as a bathing beauties contest. On September 9, 2018, Miss America 2.0 promises “a leap into the future." The organizers aim to be more inclusive for women of all shapes and sizes, and hope to empower smart and talented women to earn scholarships while they ‘compete for the job of Miss America.' They are encouraged to wear outfits that express their personal style, instead of swimsuits and evening gowns. ‘We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance, but on your talent, passion and intellect,' the organization promises. Miss America 2018, who aspires to be future governor of North Dakota, claims that women in this competition focus on shattering glass ceilings, instead of fitting into glass slippers.

Surely, these are praiseworthy goals. But how likely is it that they will be achieved? Is scrapping the swimsuit competition enough to overlook the appearances of these women? Will the talents of the current candidates as public performers who can capture an audience by dancing, singing, or playing musical instruments help them to become future leaders? Will the reform of this competition help these and other women escape being judged on their looks in the workplace and shatter glass ceilings?

The promises made by the Miss America organizers suggest that people can simply be instructed to separate appearance from performance when evaluating others. Indeed, one might hope that we are able to focus on qualities that are relevant for the job, when selecting candidates for a specific function. But this is not as easy as it may seem.

Appearance vs. abilities

There are many examples showing that people find it difficult to judge the performance of women, without being distracted by their appearance. The Wiener Philharmonic orchestra only succeeded in hiring female musicians after they started auditioning behind a curtain, shoes off. These elaborate measures were needed to prevent that their looks and gender would influence judgments of their musical performance. There also is the  famous case of Ann Hopkins, a successful consultant who attracted large clients for her firm. Yet, she was rated unfit for partnership, because of her make-up and dress style.  Female athletes too, often receive comments on their outfits instead, of their achievements. This recently happened -again- to star tennis player Serena Williams, who won the prestigious Roland Garros Grand Slam contest less than a year after having survived the difficult birth of her daughter. In the media, disapproval of her black catsuit prevailed over praise of her fitness and strong play.  

The tendency to focus on women’s looks and bodies instead of their character traits or abilities – even in situations where looks should not matter - is quite wide-spread. Men as well as women tend to establish the worth of individual women primarily by the way their body looks, research shows. We do not do this when we evaluate men. Women are aware this is the case, and also derive their own sense of value from the way they look. This affects their self-confidence, task focus and performance, even on tasks totally unrelated to their looks.

Overall impressions suffer

The widespread tendency to focus on their appearance instead of their talents also determines the overall impression people have of women, as well as the way they are treated by others. For instance, research has consistently established that women are perceived as less competent and are seen as less fully human when evaluators focus on the way they look.

This happens regardless of their professional role or their actual attractiveness (i.e., when evaluating Sarah Palin as well as Angelina Jolie). A focus on their appearance also makes women seem less trustworthy and sincere. This is because they are being considered less as humans and more as objects. As a result of focusing on their outwardly visible features, we are tempted to overlook their inner states, ignore markers of their intentions, beliefs, and desires, and less likely to empathize with their plight. All these things do not happen when we evaluate the looks of men.

Positive comments can be harmful too

The general inclination to focus on looks and appearance when evaluating women is not so easily eradicated. Women suffer from this, regardless of whether they are seen as attractive or unattractive. Seemingly innocent or even positive comments on the way they look -especially in a situation where looks should not matter- can undermine the performance of women and diminish the career opportunities they receive.

Expecting women to wear a swimsuit in a competition for talent is an obvious trigger to consider their bodies rather than their minds. The decision of the Miss America organization to abolish the swimsuit competition is an important step forward in countering this tendency. Yet, this only constitutes a first step and is no guarantee that the competition will be about talents, instead of looks, from now on. In other situations too, more care is needed to ensure that women can display their talents without having to worry about the way they look. 

References

Calogero, R. M., Tantleff-Dunn, S., & Thompson, J. K. (Eds.). (2011). Self-objectification in women: Causes, consequences, and counteractions. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Rhode,  L.D. (2010). The Beauty Bias. New York: Oxford University Press