Did you ever wonder how that extremely pretty blonde girl on Instagram (or TikTok) managed to get 1 million followers?
Or did you ever wonder how that hiring manager managed to hire a team of attractive, young twenty-something girls when there are so many other types of employee on the market?
Or perhaps you are ‘Colin’ who surfs LinkedIn and types ‘boobies’ into the comments box when he sees someone he finds attractive.
There are so many ways to discriminate against people, we rarely think about the way we discriminate ‘for’ people. ‘Pretty privilege‘, also called ‘lookism’ is not new – it’s the idea that we favour those who are physically attractive, or those who conform to a specific type.
Kelsey Yonce calls it an ‘unearned advantage‘.
It’s how, for instance, we see some male-owned marketing agencies staffed exclusively by those attractive twenty-something girls. It’s how, according to the Institute of Labor Economics, attractive people manage to earn 15% more than supposedly less-attractive people.
Let’s not go into how little I earned in tips working at Blackpool pubs back in the ’90s compared to my colleague Tracey.
Even writing this, I feel compelled to add in words like ‘supposedly’ and ‘allegedly’ and I’m checking myself constantly. You gotta check yourself these days.Me, in a moment of self-reflection
Pretty Privilege exists, and it is doing harm. And we don’t even realise it.
It stems from our natural reaction that an attractive person is not just physically attractive, they’re likely to be attractive in other ways – competent, friendly, approachable, etc. And the flipside becomes true as well – if they’re less attractive, our instinct is to think of them as less competent, less friendly and less approachable.
And this natural reaction has been measured in research time and time again. A study in 1986 showed that when candidates were given a script – and therefore a theoretical equal chance – it was the ‘attractive’ candidates who were offered the role. A 2003 study by Shannon and Starke allowed hiring managers to pick from 9 male candidates, and the attractive ones were picked more frequently than those less attractive candidates.
And a 1991 study showed that female candidates were scored more harshly on their attractiveness, with supposedly less attractive females finding it hardest of all to get through to interview stage.
Not Always A Privilege
Turn this on its head and look at the case of Angela Rayner who was accused by Tory MPs last year of ‘bamboozling them with her legs’. Or the cycling presenter Orla Chennaoui who receives social media abuse on an industrial scale because she wears a skirt. Or the serial litigator Debrahlee Lorenzana who claims Citibank fired her because she was too ‘hot’. While the latter is known for suing all and sundry and may well have been fired for other reasons – the very idea that a woman could ‘distract men from their work’ is evidence that pretty privilege has a flipside.
Did Angela Rayner cross her legs and bamboozle Tory MPs? No. Is Orla Chennaoui the bimbo her abusers accuse her of being? No. In both cases, they’re more competent than many of their male counterparts and have greater expertise.
But being attractive comes with the downside that it attracts abuse, and it even attracts accusations that you’re being hired purely for your looks. See, for instance, my accusation above about the hiring manager only employing twenty-something attractive blonde girls.
It’s a bloody minefield, that’s what it is.Me, tripping over my own words
There’s a movement towards ‘blind’ recruiting – in other words, stripping CVs of names and gender and presenting them to clients and hiring managers in order to remove bias.
And yet how much can you remove? What is to stop anyone from going into LinkedIn and searching for that candidate anyway? Wouldn’t we look for a certain type of profile anyway, even from the details we’re given?
And here we are advising candidates to get a good headshot done. To buff up their LinkedIn profile. To look good for recruiters.
I suppose this always comes around to the eternal question – well, what the hell can be done about it?
I’m no fan of blind recruiting. I don’t see it working, and I’ve heard enough from those receiving anonymous CVs about how they’re not ‘getting the vibes’ and how the process is leaving them cold. Candidates are not products to be packaged up and homogenised, and many have gone to great lengths to market themselves, especially if they’re marketers. Go figure.
The only thing we can do to change this is to recognise that Pretty Privilege exists. Check yourself. Acknowledge it.
Only then can you DO SOMETHING about it. Orient yourself back to skills, values and capability, and if you find yourself making assumptions, check yourself again.
It’s not your fault if you make an entirely human reaction built on an entirely human bias. It is your fault if you’ve read this and you still don’t check yourself.