Friday, November 21, 2014

Through the Lookism Glass

NEW YORK – Do women suffer from a double standard in the workplace in relation to how they look? Have we gotten past the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) shade of sexism in hiring and promotion – disproportionately affecting women – that I identified in 1991 as “the professional beauty quotient”?

It is hard to believe that we are still talking about this 20 years later – but we must. When anti-feminists make the case that there is now a “level playing field” for women, and that any gender gap in achievement and pay reflects women’s own choices, they should consider what used to be called “lookism.”

In a recent commentary, the sociologist Michael Kimmel described an Iowa case in which a 33-year-old dental technician, Melissa Nelson, was fired by her male boss, not for issues related to her job performance, but because he found her too sexually attractive to work beside without fear of jeopardizing his marital vows. When Nelson sued, the court issued a heinous ruling – upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court – affirming his right to dismiss her for this reason.

One could argue that men, too, are promoted or penalized on the basis of their appearance; indeed, economists have found that those with an “above-average” appearance earn 5% more than their “less attractive” counterparts, and that workers with a “below-average” appearance earn 7-9% less than their “average” counterparts.

To be fair, there is now a professional premium on male looks as well. We all know that there is a reason that politicians spend $400 on haircuts and CEOs boast about working out at dawn with personal trainers. Looking healthy, fit, youthful, and professional are now signs that male elites use to signal their status to one another in an advanced consumer and corporate economy.

But, as the Nelson case shows, women are not just subjected to the straightforward – equally onerous – lookism that men, too, might face on the job.

Young women, especially, suffer from discrimination in the workplace when they are seen as “too” aesthetically appealing. Many workplaces channel conventionally attractive young women into out-front support, or subordinate, jobs, in which their appearance – as they bring coffee to high-status men in meetings – can add value to the corporate “brand,” though no value is being added to their own careers.

Young women are put into these visible, cheerleader roles even when their professional development might be better suited to their being unseen in a lab, or slogging away over copy late at night, or addressing a room from a position of authority. Potentially worse is the beating their confidence takes as they spend their twenties worrying, as their male peers – however attractive – almost never do, that their (generally minimal) advancement reflects an evaluation of their looks, and is not tied to their accomplishments.

Even more insidious is the reflex even today in major Western media whereby attention is regularly directed to the appearance and sexuality of powerful women, especially those in politics. The Huffington Post, an otherwise rational publication, ran a report about German Chancellor Angela Merkel under the headline “Merkel’s cleavage takes center stage in German elections,” while anti-Merkel bloggers have called attention to Merkel’s “attractiveness gap.”

Germany’s Die Partei, established by the editors of the satirical magazine Titanic, made light of the offensive trope, running a campaign under the slogan: “A woman – yes! But attractive.” The late Christopher Hitchens, by contrast, was not joking when he parsed Margaret Thatcher’s sex appeal.

This continual, rather fetishistic sexualizing of powerful women confirms the argument I made more than two decades ago in my book The Beauty Myth: Women’s appearance is used against them most rigorously – as a diversionary tactic – when real social, economic, or political power is at stake and almost within their grasp.

It is doubtless demoralizing and distracting to an influential woman to be continually treated like a bimbo, or else told by major news outlets how unattractive, old, fat, or badly dressed she is. This gauntlet of scrutiny is why young women with great leadership qualities are often reluctant to enter the public eye: they see this abuse, whether “positive” or negative, as a no-win proposition, one that powerful men simply do not face.

Does the business press ever call JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon cute, or describe him as “pouty,” or remark on his good hair and nice abs, as though he were a male stripper? Do they ever ask Ben Bernanke, “What’s with the facial hair? It’s not 1979.” Do political reporters ever take Newt Gingrich to task for, say, being overweight, unfit, and a poor dresser?

No media outlet would ever print such observations, which, when aimed at men, would appear insulting, inappropriately personal, and irrelevant. So why is it still acceptable to run public commentary about the state of Merkel’s cleavage, or Hillary Clinton’s ankles?

We should try to imagine a world in which the Jamie Dimons and Newt Gingriches struggle daily to stay focused on their high-pressure jobs, while torrents of comment and attention are devoted to how “hot” and well-dressed they are, or alternatively, how out of shape, middle-aged, and sexually unappealing they are.

Many countries have government agencies whose job is to ensure that women – and men – do not face workplace discrimination on the basis of their appearance. Unfortunately, that task has not been completed.

But, because the media play a major role in perpetuating this double standard against women in the public eye, legislating or litigating against this kind of workplace harassment will not help. Sexist commentators have to scrutinize themselves; if they do so honestly, they will not like what they see in the mirror.

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    1. Commentedm r

      Such articles as this one deserve not be printed, even from a high- class author- it is just polarising for its own sake.
      Life is just as it is and it is more than easy to follow and achieve with ALL the restraints and constraints. Just rabbiting about them will not make them just go away.
      Be ware ladies- your nemesis is not these aweful MEN, but your own ilk.

    2. CommentedMaryann King

      As a singer in a band in the 70's, I made equal pay with the rest of the band members. It was a real shock to enter the work force and find this wasn't, and still isn't true in most other parts of the work force.

    3. CommentedMK Anon

      1) woman who are in public-relation jobs because they are attractive earn more. They just used their (often) un-earned beauty capital in the labor market. Maybe many people end up stu-dying in labs would like these jobs, but don't do it because they are not pretty enough. It might also be an optimal strategy for an attractive woman to make more money or just not work using the beauty capital, especially if they have no taste in studying.

      2) Now turning to those who still study and pursue a successful carreer: In the labour market again, in a social structure, being an attractive woman open doors as well. Nelson's case is of the rare type. I can tell of many girls who got jobs or promotion by flirting (or more..), but I can't tell of man.. even men who have female bosses (which is still less frequent). So the attractiveness can play for or against woman.. But everyone uses their "talents".. some are more social, some are pretty, some are clever, some are courageous. Why trying to level the attractiveness.. and especially focus on the "negative" side (ie Nelson), while it's (more?) often the other way round they plays in?

      3) Finally, male politician also take care of their look, berlusconi's hair inplants, Hollande's diet, .. There were video on Obama's tie not being straight enough,ect.. If in the poeple talk more about woman's clothes, it is because it is less "standardized" that the black and white suit that society imposes on man (and that I try to avoid).

      But what is the goal here? That woman dress like men or men dress like woman? What is this article saying? That woman should only get the good aspects of their "attractiveness" (ie. dress better, higher "persuasion" power, higher wage in some fields), but not the negative sides (being 'judge' on their clothes/fitness a bit more, very rarely being fired for being too attractive)? That doesn't sound fair, does it? A good exercise would be to do the same lookism exercise on man: societies view on man being strong, good at sport, risk takers take them away from school and labs, in favour of sport and jobs using muscles instead of brain.. and for high responsability position: CEO's, politicians and social activists, people talking more about their sexual extra-marital life than their action/policies/thoughts.
      Weiner's case is reveals the other side of the coin: his own carreer felt appart, while that anonymous, but supposedly attractive woman carreer begins..

    4. CommentedAnton Van Boxtel

      Actually, yes, they do. Admittedly, Time is not really business press, but still:,28804,1984685_1984864_1985417,00.html

      And of course we all remember Stephen Colbert's "Ham Rove" as an example of the converse.

    5. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      Naomi Wolf is generally correct.

      However. There are differences between different cultures and subcultures. Not all women are equal to each other. The political prospects of a well connected, educated, professionally qualified, wealthy, white, married, Jewish or Christian woman will be somewhat different to those of an unknown, poor, Black or Brown Muslim single mother.

      Women are not all the same.