Suing for Looks Discrimination

Pretty people finish first — that’s a well-documented phenomenon. Folks who fall outside of cultural beauty norms — who are fatter or not white or less white or older or whatever else — make less money over their lifetimes. Economics professor Daniel S. Hamermesh suggests that people who are discriminated against because of their looks should be able to sue if they can show that their employer demonstrated a pattern of looks-based discrimination.

Now, suing over discrimination isn’t exactly new, especially where physical appearance is involved. Women have been on the losing end of those battles for years, and courts have held that women can be fired from their jobs for not wearing enough make-up or not wearing revealing uniforms (women have also been fired for being too sexy or too fat or too-whatever-else). But Hamermesh isn’t really concerned about women — he’s worried about men, of course:

Another scintillating point argued by Hamermesh is that while women often bear the brunt of looks bias in the mating arena, men are more affected by looks discrimination in the professional world, since their gender still comprises the majority of the working population.

“Most men will work, regardless of their looks. Women still have some choice about whether to work for pay,” says Hamermesh. “If a woman is bad-looking and she knows she will be penalized in the workplace, she will be less likely to work.”

Hamermesh backs up the bold assertion with study statistics he published in the American Economic Review in 1994 with co-author Jeff Biddle, Ph.D.

In the study, women ranked as the most unattractive seventh of the female population were five percentage points less likely to work than average-looking women. Meanwhile, women who ranked in the top third of attractiveness were five percentage points more likely to work than the average.

I’m quoted in response. You can head over there to read it.

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Beauty, Business, Discrimination, Gender, Law, Work and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Suing for Looks Discrimination

  1. Z S says:

    But who gets to decide if you are ugly? Do you have to accept an offical designation to pursue action? If you later cure your horrible skin condition, get a better suited haircut and redesign your wardrobe to flatter, will you be re-designated as “normal” or attractive looking and lose the right to sue?

    Possibly the figure about who works vs who is cute is correlation. Eg if people who have more access to wealth have more access to job opportunities/education, perhaps the same people are less likely to be obese and have more discretionary money to spend on eg hairdressers, stylish clothes (which get them rated more attractive). Though it does rather give the lie to the idea that beautiful women don’t have to work because they can get men to support them.

    I think where this most affects men is possibly height isn’t it?

  2. Rochelle says:

    Hmmm. Are less attractive women really ‘choosing’ not to work? My understanding in this economy is that most people are not choosing to be unemployed. It also seems that the small percentage of privileged women who according to Hamermesh are attractive enough to benefit in the mating arena (and therefore could probably also do well in the professional world) are the only ones who can ‘choose’ not to work due to the wealthy man they snagged. At the same time, they might be the same ones who are benefiting from a 5% greater chance of being hired due to their good looks. Oh to be beautiful.

  3. La Lubu says:

    Soooo…..a male economist thinks ugly women have no problem finding a man who is not only willing to marry them, but also financially support them so they don’t have to work? Huh. What’re they smoking at his college?

  4. BHuesca says:

    I especially appreciated your part of the article!

    RE: Looks discrimination based on weight – I’ve heard in many, many articles (none of which I can link to presently, as I’m at work) that it affects White women and Asian women at much higher rates than it does Latina and Black women.

    And when I’ve read that, the two devils sittin’ on my shoulders yell out “Intersectionality!” and “Oppression Olympics!” at the same time.

  5. BHuesca says:

    Clarification…..”when I’ve read that” I mean artices about what race/ethnicity of women suffers most from looks/weight discrimination. I did not mean that the article Jill quoted from & is quoted in is the one that made me feel like screaming.

  6. Attractiveness is both objective and subjective. It’s tough to gauge a measurable standard. Looks discrimination sort of reminds me of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote about pornography. “I know it when I see it.”

    This doesn’t mean that it is fictional, just that beyond cultural standards of beauty, we function on the basis of a continuum to decide who classifies as beautiful or not beautiful.

  7. How says:

    How do you disentangle “he was discriminated against because he’s ugly” from “he was discriminated against because he lacked confidence, which stems from his perceived ugliness?” Seems like opening up legal claims in this area would be pretty messy at best.

    Now, if you can show discrimination based on a medically recognizable condition – acne, giantism, obesity, gender dysphoria – maybe it is less problematic, since those might be covered by existing ADA law.

  8. FashionablyEvil says:

    I think where this most affects men is possibly height isn’t it?

    Yes, tall men make more money than short ones.

  9. Sheelzebub says:

    Huh. This dude should have been there when my old boss (who was no hottie himself) actually outright refused to hire women who weren’t conventionally attractive. Even wrote on the resume of one woman “looks–not great”. And complained to me that the candidates weren’t attractive enough. He finally STFU when I pointed out that his refusal to hire them based on their looks could be actionable, and that I’d be duty bound to testify if it came to that.

  10. zatarra says:

    I work in Minneapolis. When I walk through the skyway at lunch all I see is unattractive fat ladies. 1/50 is attractive. The attractive ones are at home cheating on their rich husbands.

  11. DP says:

    Something something Harrison Bergeron something something Douglas Adams something something *leaps off cliffs of insanity screaming silently*

  12. kb says:

    this also seems even harder to prove than most forms of discrimination, mostly because it’s so subjective. I can’t really see anyone going in to a doctor to get an official diagnosis of ugly. And I just, can’t get how you write a law, most of which have to be in either you broke it or not form, to deal with something with a range like looks. At what point do I get to sue? If I’m officially ugly? or just uglier than 1 person who works there? bottom half?

  13. CassandraSays says:

    In theory, sure, people should be able to sue over any kind of discrimination. In practice, I’m not seeing how this could be done in a way that wasn’t horrible for the person filing the suit.

  14. BHuesca says:

    I was on a camping trip with my lovely college girlfriends a few years ago, and I woke up a couple hours earlier than everyone else, so I borrowed a book- it was the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Yeah, I know.

    But there’s a scene in it where the protagonist’s mother has been in bed for months with (I think) a nervous breakdown. A brand-new-at-her-job and recently-divorced-in-the-1940s saleswoman comes to the door, and the protagonist tells her mother that the saleswoman has on an unflattering shade of lipstick. The mother says that this will not do, and, feeling sorry for the saleswoman, gets out of bed, interrupts the saleswoman’s spiel, and gives her makeup lessons and they end up being lifelong friends. And the saleswoman was successful and happy and yada yada.

    Why, yes, there’s a point here: for some jobs, beauty discrimination could make sense, I guess. I don’t think I’d go to the makeup counter at Macy’s staffed by the person with the uneven lipliner, and just last night I admit to asking the male Target staffer for a guy perspective on some curtains. I still went with my choice, and my husband just said “oh, you got the curtains, thanks honey, I thought we were going to shop Saturday.” And of course there are models, who, I believe, are not subject to weight-discrimination law protections (Thank you, Oceans 13).

    (Or is this “beauty discrimination could make sense” just a means of enforcingthe know-how or willingness and ability to conform to societal standards?)

  15. Anonymouse says:

    Wait, so I assume he thinks that women “choose” not to work because they are getting married? So, using his logic, if a woman is too ugly to even show her face in an office, surely she’s too ugly to find a man to support her? Just trying to use his troll logic is hurting my ladybrain. I need a lie-down, but I only have 30 minutes of lunch break left. Ooh, but I can choose not to work!

  16. zatarra says:

    Soon, people will want to sue employers based on lack of intelligence.

  17. Echo Zen says:

    I suspect people have wanted to sue employers for lack of intelligence since time immemorial (unless you mean people’s intelligence, not employers)!

  18. zatarra says:

    yeah, I meant stupid people will sue employers for not hiring them based on that lack of intelligence.

  19. BHuesca says:

    Echo Zen:
    I suspect people have wanted to sue employers for lack of intelligence since time immemorial (unless you mean people’s intelligence, not employers)!

    Probably both are correct!

  20. DP says:

    zatarra:
    yeah, I meant stupid people will sue employers for not hiring them based on that lack of intelligence.

    It’s honestly about as rational as this – I suppose you could argue that intelligence is the only “fair” criteria to judge a person’s employability on – because it has the most direct bearing on work performance – but in the sense of being something of a genetic lottery, it’s just as unfair that some people are born with exceptional brains and others with exceptional bone structure. (If you’re born with both, you can just go toss your genetically perfect selves into a woodchipper…looking at you, Viggo Mortensen and Jodie Foster).

    I mean, it’s obviously not *fair*. But the idea of suing because you are less attractive than average…unless you can prove that, as one person related, the hiring manager is going NOPE, UGGO on a repeated basis, what the hell do you have to go off of? Would you line up the whole staff of the office/store and compare the candidate to them and have an independent panel judge their relative attractiveness.

    Plus, for some jobs, attractiveness is intrinsically tied to job effectiveness – models, salespeople at many types of clothing shops, firefighters…

  21. LC says:

    FashionablyEvil: Yes, tall men make more money than short ones.

    It’s Landsberg, so I’ll be dubious about the study he cites, but the whole “Tall men earn more” is pretty solidly established.

  22. Catherine says:

    What is this concept of “women have the option of not working?” Where does that even come from? Is the good doctor living in Connecticut circa 1949?

  23. Tori says:

    Catherine:
    What is this concept of “women have the option of not working?” Where does that even come from? Is the good doctor living in Connecticut circa 1949?

    Psshht! I totally have the option of living in a cardboard box (during monsoons) and eating cactus.

    Note: Cactus can be quite tasty, actually, but generally one wants modern culinary implements to remove the spines.

  24. umami says:

    Economist logic is basically troll logic most of the time, isn’t it?

    I read Hamermesh’s papers before. He does control for self confidence, IIRC by rating people’s looks when they were 18 and assuming that self confidence correlated to looks would have developed before that time. It was a long time ago I read that;I could have it wrong.

    But with his “men have it worse” bit he’s not doing some ridiculous whine– he’s actually trying to explain something he saw in the data. That study did show a much larger impact of male looks on salary than female looks on salary. I think his “ugly women voluntarily drop out of the workforce” explanation for this finding is obvious bullshit, (and it’s an explanation only an economist would have come up with.) But it was a very interesting finding.

    Personally I think it’s two things.
    1) Straight men are still the largest group of managers. They’ll be conscious that they evaluate women on the basis of their looks, and correct for that to some extent. They’re probably a lot less conscious that they are also evaluating men on that basis, and so don’t correct for it.
    2.) Good looking men are masculine. Good looking women are feminine. Masculinity is seen as an unambiguously desirable quality. Femininity is not. Probably the rewards for attractiveness for good looking women are muted a little by an increased penalty for seeming more feminine.
    1& 2 sort of sync up together, via Jill’s observation that very attractive women are often accused of having got jobs on the basis of their attractiveness.

  25. Rich says:

    This may be off topic but I just saw a sound bite on the news about a guy in NYC posting signs that tell guys to pull up their fucking pants! (He did not use those words exactly but you get the point) There’s a pic on the sign of a guy with his pants falling down to reveal his underwear. Apparently, the guy who posted them is now in a bit of trouble because it’s illegal to just post random signs. The media interviewed him and he seemed very sincere about it. I thought it was funny but some young people don’t like being told how to dress or not to dress.

  26. kungfulola says:

    Z S:
    But who gets to decide if you are ugly? Do you have to accept an offical designation to pursue action? If you later cure your horrible skin condition, get a better suited haircut and redesign your wardrobe to flatter, will you be re-designated as “normal” or attractive looking and lose the right to sue?

    If you read the methodology, you will see that they found that people generally do have a measurable amount of beauty – people who are rated as a “5” by one person, will be consistently rated as a “5”-ish by others. This is also cross-cultural, and becoming more homogenized across races and nationalities, according to the research cited in “Beauty Pays”.

    They also found that everyone has a “beauty baseline”; someone who is considered a 5 with no makeup or before a nosejob, only gains one or two points from applying makeup or grooming themselves, even with plastic surgery. Also, people consider faces more than body type when asked to rate attractiveness; those who were heavier but not extremely large were rated equally with those who had the same level of facial beauty but were thinner. We have unconscious positive reactions to people we think of as beautiful, it’s possible that we are attuned to blow past artifice and judge people based on unalterable features.

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