Women entrepreneurs share many issues with men, but they are challenged by one particular bias that is often not discussed in a public way and looms as the ultimate “third rail” issue — how the world perceives attractive women.
Now I am on record right now as acknowledging that this topic is the deep end of the pool, but, nonetheless, I am wading in carefully, and wearing hip boots.
It is well known that handsome, tall men earn more, are promoted more, are believed to be smarter and so on — regardless of their actual accomplishments. They get a benefit based on their appearance. So, do attractive women get the same benefit? It turns out the answer is no. To support this, I am turning to Leah Sheppard, an assistant professor at Washington State University, who has recently published “For Women in Business, Beauty is a Liability.”
Sheppard and her co-author, Stefanie Johnson, associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, set up an experiment. The premise was that a company was making layoffs “because of economic conditions.” They collected pictures of men and women in various categories of “attractiveness,” and they then showed these pictures to participants who were being terminated.
The professors asked the participants a couple of questions — how much did they trust the explanation being given for the layoffs, and did he or she seem “honest?” In one other study, they also asked if the female executive doing the layoffs should be fired.
Their study found that the beautiful women were perceived to be less truthful, less trustworthy as leaders, and more deserving of termination than their more ordinary-looking female counterparts. Sheppard says, “Highly attractive women can be considered as dangerous”— what she calls “the femme fatale effect.”
This is fascinating because in general, the stereotype perception is that more attractive women do better in getting jobs and promotions. Yet the double standard also brands them as potentially the “evil seductress” with the intent of manipulating men. Smart and attractive might get you the job, but then you are at risk of being reviled and penalized for exactly those qualities. And it is worse if you are a woman executive.
The study went on to see if “sexuality” changed the outcome. Sheppard set up a dynamic in which the male participants were “romantically secure.” So if the female leader is talking to happily married men who are not on the make, then she gets a better rating. If you are both eye candy and highly competent, you get double whacked. Deep-rooted evolutionary instincts take hold raising feelings of jealousy and suspicion in the men — what you might call the “tight red dress syndrome” that makes it much harder for the woman to overcome, build trust and be taken seriously.
Of course, many companies do provide bias-awareness training but that is usually only in the area of gender, race, sexual orientation and religion. It does not touch the issue of beauty or weight. That stuff is still taboo, but women are subjected to potential discrimination in these areas all the time. “Even today research shows that men still place a higher value on physical attractiveness,” according to the study.
Now let’s be reminded of one more unfair rung on the ladder of power and success. Female founders received 2.2 percent of the $130 billion in venture capital funding in 2018, according to data from Pitchbook. So it appears that if you are smart and attractive — well, too bad. In earlier columns, I have often discussed the risk of our biases clouding the rational decision-making process. We talk a good game about diversity, but in the end, workplace change is semi-glacial.
Finally, the last question explored in the study is should women make an effort to dress well? That one clearly has a nuclear warhead on it, and while Sheppard and Johnson do not tacitly encourage women to downplay their beauty or sexuality, they do still urge behaviors like “being warm, caring and transparent.” Welcome to No-Win City.
Neil Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Neil at email@example.com.