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Cristen Conger Headshot

Just How Good Is Too Good Looking in the Workplace?

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When reading Jessica Bennett's stellar Newsweek piece on "The Beauty Advantage", one figure stuck out to me. The magazine surveyed 202 corporate hiring managers about the impact of attractiveness on hiring and performance, and while a majority stressed the importance of paying attention to personal grooming, "47 percent also believe it's possible for a woman to be penalized for being 'too good-looking.'"

But for women in the workplace, where is the border between pretty and too pretty? For instance, should 31-year-old women tread lightly in the office since a recent QVC survey found that attractiveness supposedly peaks at that age? Are the Joan Holloways of the office doomed due to their ample curves? (Debrahlee Lorenzana would probably agree.) Does physical attractiveness have a less potent impact for women working in the healthcare sector and other occupations that require figure-hiding uniforms?

Work performance, skills and education aside, I want to get down to brass tacks on what those hiring managers really had in mind when they admitted to punishing the pretty. So just as Newsweek's Tony Dokupil scoured studies for the downside of beauty, I dug up some additional research to try to answer these questions.

When it comes to dressing for work, beautiful women can't downplay their looks by donning a professional suit and sensible shoes. Why? Studies have shown that men and women evaluate people's dress and the messages it projects differently, with women associating well-suited men as having higher status and authority, and men seeing only the physical traits in the opposite sex. On the other hand, gender-neutral dress codes, such as the standard white doctor's coat, can mitigate this difference. According to a study from the University of Sutherland, doctors in formal attire plus the white coat were perceived as being more authoritative and trustworthy, regardless of their gender. I'm not suggesting that it's time to codify work apparel, but rather point out that, yes, attractive women who wear clothes well - be they hip-hugging pencil skirts or wide-legged trousers - are perceived differently.

Makeup
and hair can also negatively affect perceptions of women in the workplace, and the issue arises often in sexual discrimination suits under Title VII. A closer examination also reveals a double standard about women's personal presentation in the office. While women who wear so-called suitable amounts of makeup are rewarded with higher likeability among co-workers and bosses, they often report diminished credibility as well for projecting an overtly feminine aesthetic.

But here's the thing about research on the beauty premium. While not all academics agree that it happens on a consistent basis, their findings suggest that women experience the flip side of the equation -- the beauty penalty -- more often. In examining the impact of gender and beauty in the labor market, a study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology pointed out that handsome men win out, as opposed to fetching women. Theoretically, male beauty evokes perceptions of leadership, while female beauty stirs untrustworthiness when their work performance is singled out from a group. In a way then, the definition of "too good looking" in the workplace is merely looking like our socially constructed concept of a female.

Now, if Hanna Rosin from The Atlantic was right about society reaching the "end of men," and women being poised to take over the reins in the workplace, it could have a ripple effect on this beauty backlash. See, a recent study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that men are evolutionarily more distracted by a pretty face than women, and additional research reveals that women have more complex and diverse attractiveness standards than their male counterparts.

With the probability of more women doing the hiring, firing and promoting, I wonder if those biological differences might slightly downplay the beauty premium effect and level the playing field for everyone. Here's hoping my armchair theory bears out, because that sounds like a prettier picture indeed.