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Female beauty can be beastly at work, Washington researcher says

Washington State University researcher Leah Sheppard
WSU News
Washington State University researcher Leah Sheppard

Highly attractive businesswomen are considered to be less trustworthy, less truthful and more deserving to be fired, according to a researcher at Washington State University. Her provocative findings were just published online in the peer-reviewed gender studies journal Sex Roles.Most of us assume good looks are helpful in life and for advancement. But the study based at the WSU Carson College of Business found attractiveness can also be a liability, specifically for businesswomen.

The research team recruited study panelists online through Amazon Mechanical Turk, a marketplace for freelancers. Groups of participants then rated the truthfulness of men and women announcing layoffs in mock news articles that were illustrated with photos of attractive or unattractive executives and spokespeople.

"We found a very consistent pattern where if it was an attractive woman who was the one providing the explanation, she was not only deemed less truthful, but also when we did assess trust, leadership and deserving of termination, she was penalized on those as well," said lead author Leah Sheppard, an assistant professor at WSU.

Sheppard and co-author Stefanie Johnson of the University of Colorado-Boulder attribute the negative response to attractive females to primal feelings of sexual insecurity in both men and women. The researchers supported this conclusion by re-running their experiments with new study panelists who were first coached into a "romantically secure" frame of mind. In those iterations, the bias against attractive women went away.

"You have the 'what is beautiful is good' stereotype, meaning that in general attractive people should fare better across their lifespan. We can say that that's generally true," Sheppard said in a news release about the study. "It becomes more nuanced when we look at gender. For women there are certain contexts in which they don't seem to benefit from their beauty."

In their paper, Sheppard and Johnson labeled the  latter phenomenon as the "femme fatale effect." They also refashioned a phrase from previous work in the field of attractiveness and employment into the heading, "When beauty is beastly at work."

Sheppard said the study largely measured first impressions. She said it is plausible that in real-life workplaces that an attractiveness penalty might wane as co-workers get to know each other better.

Besides its relevance to the modern workplace, Sheppard said her study could also have implications in the political realm, where superficial impressions might carry more weight since most people don't get to know candidates in person.

"The first impressions that we make — the split-second judgements that we make about [politicians] — are really important then for informing whether we're going to like them, pay attention, whether we're going to learn more about their platforms and whether we are eventually going to vote for them," Sheppard added in an interview.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.