Can Sex Appeal Advance Your Career?

By Samantha Chang

We live in a visually-oriented society and there’s no question that looks matter a lot, from the bedroom to the boardroom. But to what extent does appearance affect our professional success, and can a woman really use sex appeal to further her career, or will it just hurt her in the end?

pic1Impact on Salary

Research indicates that appearance does matter in the workplace and even affects our bottom line. Unattractive people earn less than average-looking people, who in turn make less than the good-looking, according to a study by economists Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle. The “plainness penalty” is about 9%, while the “beauty premium” is 5%, according to the report, which was published in the Journal of Labor Economics.

So what exactly does this mean? Translation: An attractive worker makes 5% more per hour than an average-looking person, who in turn earns 9% more than their unattractive counterparts. In real dollars, this means that if an average-looking person makes $30,000, their beautiful colleagues would make $31,500, while the homeliest workers earn just $27,523. And interestingly, the impact was similar for both men and women.

Survival of the Prettiest?

Not only do pretty people earn more, they also receive more promotions during their careers than their homely counterparts, the study found. And this bias doesn’t just impact worker bees; even managers must endure the scrutiny of our looks obsession.

Attractive bosses were viewed as more competent, collaborative and better delegators than their homely counterparts, according to a recent survey by Elle magazine and MSNBC.com. “Physical attractiveness creates a halo around a person,” according to management psychologist Ken Siegel. “We still place a premium on physical attractiveness as a mediator of other things, and we do not attribute favorable qualities to people we deem unattractive.”

pic2There’s nothing illegal about this bias, either, experts say, because this tendency to favor the genetically blessed is subtle and subconscious. So does this mean we should take our hair appointments as seriously as we take our educational goals? Should our daily office to-list include lunch-hour facials and teeth whitening?

“You’d be a fool if you didn’t use your looks to your advantage and make the most of what you’ve got,” according to Siegel. “Don’t pretend it doesn’t matter. It’s a huge part of life in the 21st century.”

The Backlash

Still, many experts caution against placing too high a value on beauty. While good looks may help get you into the door, it won’t necessarily help you move up, they warn. The image you project plays a key role in how far you rise professionally. For women who are serious about climbing the corporate ladder, dressing provocatively is a definite no-no.

Dressing sexy for work is considered inappropriate for all female employees, according to a recent study by Peter Glick, a professor at Lawrence University. But women managers who wear sexy clothes to the office are seen as less intelligent and less competent, according to the report. On the other hand, women in low-level positions who dressed provocatively aren’t viewed as less intelligent or less competent (of course, this makes you wonder how intelligent or competent people thought they were to begin with).

So while we place a definite premium on good looks in the workplace, dressing trashy or too sexy can backfire. In fact, women in higher levels of authority should dress more conservatively in order to earn the respect of their peers and subordinates, the Glick report suggests.

A woman who blatantly trades on her sex appeal is penalized because people secretly find it distasteful, and many men (who are usually the ones in power positions) are actually jealous of the “beauty power” women possess, says Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Are the Way They Are.

The Big Picture

In the final analysis, while good looks are certainly an asset, they can only take you so far in your career. Anyone who relies on a gimmick to get ahead is sure to reach a dead end very quickly. And woe to the gal who tries to capitalize on her beauty by playing it up with racy clothes.

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