Science of Success

5 Ways to Overcome the 'Beauty Bias' That Can Hold Your Career Back

How to give yourself every advantage when something like your weight can impact your earnings by nearly $400,000.
5 Ways to Overcome the 'Beauty Bias' That Can Hold Your Career Back
Image credit: Chris Ryan | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
9 min read

Think being smart and working hard is enough? Think again. Unfortunately, when it comes to looks, the deck is often stacked against the majority of men and women alike -- namely the “normals,” or those don't resemble models or movie stars.

Unsurprisingly, research demonstrates that attractive folks are more likely to land everything from startup pitches to job interviews. They’re even considered more trustworthy. This “beauty bias” can eventually cost you in cold, hard dollars. According to a Yale study conducted by U.S. economist Daniel Hamermesh, attractive men can earn 9 percent more than their average-looking colleagues, while attractive women could see a bump of up to 4 percent.

Of course, you can’t always change your looks -- or how people receive them. Most of our ideas about standards of beauty are so remarkably skewed and culturally entrenched, we’re not even always aware of them. Case in point, a recent study from Abertay University in Scotland found that a woman that's seen as wearing too much makeup can affect people’s perception of her ability to lead. But there is much that’s still in your control.

Related: How to Master the Art of the First Impression

"Individuals at all levels of attractiveness aren't defenseless, so to speak, in that they can take action and should take action," says Gordon Patzer, Ph.D. and founder of the Appearance Research Institute.  

Hamermesh agrees. "There is very little you can do to make yourself better-looking, but you can present yourself better," says the author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful.

To that end, here are five strategies to give yourself every advantage in spite of the biases most of us will face at some point in our careers.

5 Ways to Overcome the 'Beauty Bias' That Can Hold Your Career Back

Take care of yourself.

In 2011, Timothy Judge and Daniel M. Cable, both professors at Cleveland State, also explored the relationship between weight and wage, and they founds that “a woman who is average weight earns $389,300 less across a 25-year career than a woman who is 25 pounds below average weight.” If women stray from that slim ideal, they get penalized. For men, the experience is somewhat different.

“Very thin men, conversely, are punished relative to their average-weight peers, and men are rewarded for gaining weight until the point of obesity,” explain Judge and Cable of their findings.

What’s more, the researchers found that for American men, weight gain is actually linked to a boost in salary. For someone who is below average weight, an extra 25 pounds can mean an additional $8,437 per year. If he is above average weight, that figure is slightly less, but not by much at approximately $7,775.

Related: 5 Reasons Why You Won't Reach Your Fitness or Business Goals

The skinnier men get the short end of the financial stick, and the fallout is considerable. “All else equal, a man who is 25 pounds below average weight is predicted to earn $210,925 less across a 25-year career than a man who is of average weight,” Judge and Cable point out.

Of course, weight isn’t always in our control, and the perfect weight is subjective. Which is why it’s a comfort to know that exercise can still be a help. Researchers from Cleveland State University found that employees who regularly exercise are more likely to earn higher salaries. On average, they make 9 percent more than their co-workers who avoid the gym.

Getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine are essential building blocks for success, both mentally and physically. And even if you hate it, taking care of yourself means going to the doctor and the dentist for regular appointments, too.

These are steps you can take when you’re first starting out in the working world -- or if you’re beginning to think about retirement. Maintaining a healthy and energetic outlook can go a long way toward fostering a positive perception of yourself in the eyes of others.

5 Ways to Overcome the 'Beauty Bias' That Can Hold Your Career Back

Present the best version of yourself.

You've likely heard the phrase “dress for the job you want.” To that end, Patzer advises that you make sure your hair, clothes (both style and fit), jewelry and accessories, such as glasses and makeup, are all contemporary, age-appropriate and suitable for your industry and work environment.

For example, this summer, sociologists from the University of California, Irvine, found that people who put effort into grooming earn about 20 percent more than those who don't. But, as with weight and salary, women and men experience this phenomenon differently. “We do find that grooming accounts for the entire attractiveness premium for women, and only half of the premium for men,” the researchers explain.

Related: How to Do Business Casual With Exquisite Style

Andrew Penner, an associate professor who co-authored the study, said in a statement accompanying the results, “What we see is that for the labor market return, what matters is not your innate attractiveness but rather how you present yourself.”

When you take the time to do this, "you're signaling that you care and that you're doing the best you can with what you've got," Hamermesh says. If you project that you care about yourself and your appearance, others will recognize that you will put in the effort to make this new assignment or client relationship a success.

5 Ways to Overcome the 'Beauty Bias' That Can Hold Your Career Back

Know the context within your landscape.

Of course, even the gorgeous people can’t always win. According to some research, it’s possible to be too beautiful, at least outside of Hollywood and the New York fashion industry.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Central Florida found that conventionally beautiful women were discriminated against when applying for jobs in which looks weren't relevant to the position -- or in fields stereotyped as more masculine, such as finance or engineering.

"In every other kind of job, attractive women were preferred,” says Stefanie Johnson, University of Colorado management professor, of the findings. “This wasn't the case with men, which shows that there is still a double standard when it comes to gender.”

Related: How a Little Lipstick Could Add Thousands to Your Paycheck

Additionally, Patzer warns that if you try to boost your appearance with a new wardrobe that really isn't “you,” or you decide, after weighing the financial and emotional implications, to opt for a cosmetic procedure such as Botox, be aware that your peers and colleagues may notice that there’s something artificial about your look. That can be a knock against you, too.

"People need to look at themselves, and see what they can change and what they should change [according to what feels] comfortable for them,” says Patzer. You can simply begin by taking note of what the most successful leaders in your industry wear, and find the version that works best and is most flattering to you.

5 Ways to Overcome the 'Beauty Bias' That Can Hold Your Career Back

No matter what, lead with your strengths.

It isn't only your style that could play a role in how much is on the table for your salary -- height can factor in as well. In 2004, a psychology study by researchers at the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina found that for every inch you stand above the national average, you could earn an additional $789 (unadjusted) per year.

Since you can’t truly change your height, Hamermesh says that you can never go wrong leading with your strengths, especially because there are some aspects about yourself that you simply cannot change.

"As in any activity, stress the things that you're good at. I think that's what we have to do when applying for jobs,” Hamermesh explains. "You go along in those directions, in which you are especially [skilled]. If you deal with somebody quickly, and get them to focus on the things you're good at, they'll ignore the fact that you're not the most beautiful person in the world."

Related: 5 Keys to Inspiring Leadership, No Matter Your Style

Emphasizing what you’re good at will help put you at ease, which will increase your confidence. High self-esteem and a positive attitude go a long way toward creating a perception of beauty -- and body language matters.

"A person who has open body language, who doesn't cross their arms, doesn't cross their legs during the interaction, they are actually judged more physically attractive than less physically attractive," Patzer says.

5 Ways to Overcome the 'Beauty Bias' That Can Hold Your Career Back

Examine your own bias.

Two professors from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that when a company hires an attractive CEO, it sees a spike in its stock prices, and when the executive appears on TV, the effect is similar. Researchers Joseph T. Halford and Hung-Chia Hsu also identified that the more attractive leaders tend to fare better when it comes to negotiating mergers and acquisitions. But attractiveness doesn’t mean diddly if you don’t have the know-how to get the job done.

When philharmonic orchestras audition new members, they often have the candidates play their instruments behind a screen so the judges evaluate them on talent alone. If you're interviewing for an office job or meeting with a prospective client, that likely isn't going to be how your interaction goes down.

Related: Overcoming Unconscious Bias Is Key to Building an Inclusive Team

If you’re a hiring manager, or when you’re seated at the negotiating table, make sure that your own unconscious bias doesn't discount or give an undue advantage to a given candidate. "Hiring personnel need to be aware that they should not close the door to hearing what that person has to offer just because they do not fit the image or the physical attractiveness [they have in mind]," Patzer cautions.

Hamermesh agrees. "Just as the person looking for a job ought to be presenting his or her best foot forward, the manager ought to be looking what will be most important to the job. Looks matter are not going to be important -- how the person performs, how he or she deals with colleagues is more important.”

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  • 5 Ways to Overcome the 'Beauty Bias' That Can Hold Your Career Back
  • 1. Take care of yourself.
  • 2. Present the best version of yourself.
  • 3. Know the context within your landscape.
  • 4. No matter what, lead with your strengths.
  • 5. Examine your own bias.
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