If you want to get a raise or a promotion, you might want to throw on a pair of heels and suck in that belly. Your looks can help--or hinder--your chances of getting a well-deserved promotion, regardless of qualifications, especially in a sour economy when advancements are few and hard to come by.
Women who advance most at work, studies agree, are more attractive, thinner, taller and have a more youthful appearance than their female colleagues who are promoted less often.
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A landmark study from Cornell University found that when white females put on an additional 64 pounds, her wages drop 9%. And according to a 2007 paper from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a statistically significant "wage penalty" for overweight and obese white women. ("Previous studies have shown that white women are the only race-gender group for which weight has a statistically significant effect on wages," according to the paper.) The obese take a bigger hit, with a wage loss of 12%.
Being large leads to negative stereotypes--thinking that person is sloppy, lazy or slow, for example--for women that just aren't true, says Bill Fabrey, a director of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination.
Fabrey recounts incidences of several plus-size female colleagues who have gotten interviews with prospective employers only to be told the job had been filled once they showed up for an in-person interview.
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"There are interviewers who don't care [about weight], but those are not as plentiful as the other kind," he says.
Being average looking comes with a hefty price, too. The best-looking echelon of attractive females--the top one-third--make about 10% more annually than those in the bottom sixth of the genetic pool, according to research by Daniel Hamermesh, Ph.D., a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin.
Just what makes for attractive? According to Hamermesh in a interview with CNN, "It's symmetry of features. ... But not too [attractive]. It's not perfect. If it's perfect, it's bland. There's got to be a little off, otherwise you lose interest." Apart from a balanced face--and good physical health--a woman's appeal is also reportedly in having a low waist-to-hip ratio.
And youth. A study done this year by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that some 73% of women felt a youthful appearance played a role in getting a job, getting promoted or keeping clients. Many cited difficult economic times as part of the reason--with fewer raises and promotions to be given, the better-looking are the ones advancing.
"In this bad economy, as people age, employers and colleagues perceive them as having less energy and being less effective" notes Gordon Patzer, Ph.D., a psychologist from Chicago who has studied looks for 30 years. "Being older in the workplace is looked at negatively," he adds.
Patzer says bleaching your teeth, wearing appropriate makeup or updating your hairstyle or wardrobe can take years off a person's look.
What's Behind Our Thinking?Various psychological reasons can answer why we choose to promote better-looking people and keep the rest behind. For ancestral humans, better-looking people were thought to be more productive and fecund, according to Patzer.
And, interestingly, able to bring home more food. From a psychological standpoint, Patzer says, "people of higher physical attractiveness are more persuasive, which is critical in the workplace."
That may be the reason women of short stature get the short end of the stick. Although there is no correlation between height and effectiveness or intelligence, a woman who is 5 feet 7 inches tall--well above the national female average of 5 feet, 3.5 inches--will make $5,250 more over the course of a year than a female co-worker standing 5 feet 2 inches.
"We like to look up to our leaders," says Patzer, noting that a subordinate is more likely to respond positively to a taller manager.
Malcolm Gladwell calls the behavior an unconscious prejudice, a prejudice you reach without even thinking. In his best-selling book Blink, he polled about half the country's top 500 CEOs and found that 58% were nearly 6 feet tall; in contrast, the average American male is 5 foot 9 inches tall.
Also, because most states don't have laws against weight or height discrimination--currently Michigan is the only state that includes either group as a protected category under anti-discrimination law--women stand underprotected.
"Either the judicial and legislative arm of the market have decided that's OK [to favor certain groups], or they've decided that trying to do something about it would be way too difficult," says Bill O'Brien, founding partner at Miller O'Brien Cummins, a Minneapolis firm that specializes in labor and employment law.
"On the subject of physical appearance, there is not much protection under employment statutes," he adds.
What Can You Do?In a competitive work environment, it is only natural to want to do everything possible to get an extra edge, but if you're thinking pricey cosmetic surgeries are the answer, you're mistaken. Women who go under the knife make an extra five cents per dollar they spend on the dangerous procedures, according to Hamermesh's research. "It's a terrible investment," he says.
Instead, Judy Jernudd, a leadership coach in Los Angeles, recommends honing certain psychological behaviors, like walking upright and with confidence, which will make you seem taller than someone who is slouched over or walking with her head down. It will also trick others into perceiving you as more physically attractive. Heels will also help, but not over an inch and a half, say most podiatrists.
Although there isn't a lot you can do to make yourself look thinner--wearing dark colors and streamlined clothes help--Jernudd does note that women with confidence always come across as thinner and better-looking. "A lot of it has to do with personality," she says.
So what about women who say looks shouldn't matter in the workplace?
"It shouldn't matter, but it does," says Jernudd. "It is competitive enough today. Why sabotage yourself by not giving it the best you can?"