Before taking up the pen full-time, I used to advise corporations on their hiring strategies in new markets. Unlike in America, in the rest of the world it is still customary to include a face picture with your job application. Those pictures, like profile pictures on Facebook, are becoming more and more professional: wide-open smiles, clean-shaven faces, an attractive angle, and the right background to match your skin tone have replaced overexposed passport pictures taken in the booth at the mall.
To show them how we are influenced by looks, I used to run this experiment with managers in my training program: I handed them 10 made-up applications for the same job. One group received applications with pictures, others without. The results always showed a clear bias toward more attractive people, male or female. That is hardly surprising. Managers were willing to ignore clear benefits like experience, good results in a similar job, and even firm requirements, in favor of a pleasant appearance.
I have of always been interested in how men react to other men, so I decided to repeat the exercise during a seminar late last year, using 22- to 26-year-old students rather than managers. Thirty male students, divided into five groups, had to select the best candidate from a batch of male applicants, and then again from a batch of female applicants. Like 10 years earlier, when I trained 40-year-old managers, I expected lovely ladies to get the job, but no conclusive outcome when selecting men.
The result was baffling. Contrary to expectations, the most attractive male applicants landed the jobs in all but one of the five groups (plus a clear bias over applications without pictures), while only two groups selected the most attractive female applicant. Why were ostensibly straight men clearly discriminating against ugly men but not women? I repeated the experiment in two more classes with much the same outcome.
When interviewed afterwards, the students' responses were interesting, if a little irritating. Nobody had any specific explanation for why they had chosen the most attractive males, again, like 10 years ago, disregarding qualifications and firm requirements. Most were embarrassed when I pointed out what they had done. "He looks like he can handle this job," must have been the most pathetic of the excuses. When asked about the women, there was, however, a clear consensus that selecting women based on looks was "sexist" and "highly inappropriate." Something has changed in a generation.
I have not had the time to follow up on the problem and would not have posted this article had it not been for an Israeli study published last week and reported in various papers, including The Economist. There, too, the obvious conclusion was that women should not include a photo, while handsome men clearly had an advantage in the job market. The explanation was somewhat different, namely that most HR departments are staffed by women who would more likely select a hunk and disregard attractive females. That cannot be the full story.
Young men of the 21st century clearly are more sensitive when it comes to dealing with women. That's a great success. But the same young males also seem to be more susceptible than the last generation to male attractiveness, or more ready to respond to it without considering the implications, and that's a bit of a downer for men with bad genes. My mother used to say beauty didn't matter in men. Obviously, that's no longer true. Discrimination always goes both ways, for both sexes, and the fight for a fairer job market is far from over.
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