Like It or Not, Appearance Counts in the Workplace

The New York Times, "Economic Scene" , December 28, 2000

From Al Gore's earth-tone suits to Katherine Harris's makeup to George W. Bush's post-election boil, the 2000 presidential race was filled with commentary on how the players looked. For the first time, the Gallup Organization even polled people on which candidate was better-looking. (Mr. Gore beat Mr. Bush, 44 percent to 24 percent.) The question was worth asking because the answer was not obvious. Both candidates were way above average.

Critics bemoan the emphasis on the way candidates look as a perverse product of media-oriented campaigns. But even in jobs where no TV time is required, the good-looking have a competitive edge. And, contrary to popular belief, the economic rewards for beauty are greater for men than for women.

That is what two economists -- Daniel S. Hamermesh of the University of Texas at Austin and Jeff E. Biddle of Michigan State University -- found in a 1994 analysis of data from surveys of thousands of United States and Canadian households.

Other factors being equal, the unfortunate 9 percent of working men whom interviewers classified as "below average" or downright "homely" made 9 percent less in hourly earnings than did more attractive men. By contrast, the 32 percent of men classified as "above average" or "handsome" got a wage premium of 5 percent. Women took a 5 percent hit for bad looks and earned a 4 percent premium for beauty.

This does not mean the ugly are doomed to poverty, since other factors matter a lot in determining income. The difference between the bottom and top categories, Professor Hamermesh said, "is equivalent to about a year and a half, maybe a bit less, of extra schooling; that's not small, it's not big."

What interests him is why beauty reaps rewards. Are employers just indulging their taste for good-looking associates? Or is there something about good-looking people that makes them more valuable to their companies?

To tease out more specifics about how beauty works in the labor market, in a 1998 paper Professors Hamermesh and Biddle looked at a more homogeneous group of workers: lawyers who graduated from the same law school. The school provided photos of the students, their class rank and law-review status, data on their earnings a year, 5 years and 15 years after graduating, and information about the nature of their practices. The economists then had each photo rated by a panel of four -- a man and a woman under 35 and a man and a woman over 35 -- with a score of five meaning "strikingly handsome or beautiful" and a score of one meaning "homely, far below average in attractiveness."

Again, Professors Hamermesh and Biddle found that better-looking lawyers made more money, especially as their careers progressed. Fifteen years after graduating, they noted, "better-looking midcareer attorneys were billing at higher rates, not just billing more hours."

Within this general pattern, Professors Hamermesh and Biddle looked for differences between subgroups that might indicate why better-looking lawyers earned more. If, for instance, law firm partners simply discriminated to suit their own tastes, then self-employed lawyers should be immune from the economic effects of their looks. But, the economists found, "if anything, beauty pays off more for self-employed junior attorneys than for employees."

That suggests that clients, not hiring firms, make the difference.

To test that idea, the economists looked at the difference between private-sector lawyers, who have to woo clients, and public-sector lawyers, who do not. The results were striking. The private sector not only drew more attractive lawyers to start, but the looks gap grew over time.

Good-looking government lawyers tended to switch to private firms, while less-attractive lawyers moved from law firms to government jobs. Good-looking people "will go into fields where their beauty is more important," Professor Hamermesh said. "They'll switch to those areas where the payoff is greater." The higher payoff to good looks, he emphasizes, comes from "consumer discrimination," not employer tastes.

That payoff appears to be an international phenomenon. A 1997 study by Professors Hamermesh and Biddle and two Dutch economists, Ciska Bosman and Gerard Pfann, found that Dutch advertising agencies with good-looking executives had higher revenues and faster growth than their competitors had. So attractive executives were not just an office amenity; they were actually more economically productive.

And in a 1999 paper, Professor Hamermesh, Xin Meng of the Australian National University and Junsen Zhang of the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that in Shanghai women in the top 35 percent in terms of looks earned about 10 percent more than women with average or below average looks, other factors being equal. The Shanghai study, "Dress for Success -- Does Primping Pay?" added another element to the economics of beauty: the return on spending for clothes and cosmetics. The economists found that beauty spending did increase earnings slightly, but by no more than 5 percent of what women spent on clothes and cosmetics. Makeup and new clothes were not investments; they were consumption. "You're not dressing for success," Professor Hamermesh said. "You're dressing to make yourself happier."

It is tough to admit that something as superficial and preordained as personal beauty could be genuinely valuable in the marketplace. But the rewards for good looks are too pervasive to blame mean-spirited employers. "All of our discrimination policies are based on the employer, yet the evidence we have says that there are these wage differentials, they seem persistent, they seem consistent with any kind of theory, and all the evidence points to them being caused by the way consumers feel," Professor Hamermesh said. "In other words, the problem is all of us."

Or perhaps it is no problem at all. Instead of treating beauty like race -- as a suspect category irrelevant to job performance -- maybe we should think of it more like intelligence, charm or musical aptitude. Some people are lucky enough to have it, while others have to cultivate other gifts. And we would all rather enjoy the good looks of others than do without them.