Is being pretty bad for your career?

A Stanford law prof argues for protecting women from the 'beauty bias' — even if not everyone's sympathetic.

On June 1, The Village Voice put “33-year-old single mom” Debrahlee Lorenzana on its cover. “Is this woman too hot to be a banker?” the New York newspaper asked, offering plenty of photos to help readers make up their own minds about the story of a woman fired from her job at Citibank because, she claimed, her managers and co-workers thought she was too attractive.

Few of us suffer the problem Lorenzana claimed, but recent research, and high-profile sexual harassment suits at IBM, BP and Penguin Canada, have brought the issue to the forefront. One new study finds that attractive women are discriminated against when applying for “masculine” jobs in finance, engineering and R&D. “In these professions, being attractive was highly detrimental to women,” said Stefanie Johnson, a University of Colorado-Denver business school professor and one of the study’s authors. “In every other kind of job, attractive women were preferred.”

This last point suggests the kind of discrimination we’re more likely to encounter: a Hooters waitress in Michigan was recently put on probation until she lost weight. A casino bartender in Reno was fired after challenging her employer’s policy that female workers be “dolled up.” And a 240-pound fitness instructor in San Francisco was denied a Jazzercise franchise because she’s considered too full-bodied. Subtle or blatant, biases about appearance are everywhere. And according to one jurist, they’re the logical next target for civil rights legislation.

“We know it hurts to be beautiful. We know it hurts not to be beautiful,” says Deborah L. Rhode, a law professor and director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University. “We all know that looks matter. But I think few of us realize how much.” Rhode’s new book, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, is both an examination of the ways in which appearance biases manifest themselves, and what can be done to mitigate them.

Research suggests that 12% to 16% of workers believe they’ve been subject to prejudice based on their looks, about the same number (or greater) than those claiming discrimination based on race, gender, age or religious beliefs. Some 60% of overweight women and 40% of overweight men believe they’ve been discriminated against because of their weight. And a host of studies show that less attractive people are penalized during the job application process. “Economists have attempted to quantify the ‘beauty bump,’ or the ‘plainness penalty,’ in a variety of occupations,” Rhode says. One such study focusing on the legal profession found an appearance-based difference in pay of as much as 14%.

Rhode’s book offers a host of suggestions as to what employers can do to discourage bias based on looks. “Making appearance part of official antidiscrimination policies would be a start, and she also wants more health and nutrition education in schools and in the workplace, to address weight issues in a positive way. “You want people to address the health attributes that often lead to appearance-related biases, but not just in a way that focuses on appearance,” she says. “Stigmatizing people on the basis of these characteristics does not lead to positive behaviour changes.”

The heart of Rhode’s advocacy, though, is for governments to specifically outlaw employment discrimination based on looks, as they have for race and gender.

Seven jurisdictions in the United States have so far passed legislation dealing with appearance discrimination, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Michigan is the only state in the union to offer such protections. Beyond American borders, only the Australian state of Victoria explicitly bans appearance-based bias. There are no such laws on the books in Canada.

Talk of having one more government regulation to contend with may not be well received in all quarters, something Rhode understands. “You add one more thing, and it triggers resentment against the whole civil rights regime,” she says.

But her research found little evidence of backlash in the jurisdictions that have passed such laws. What’s more, she found very little “loony litigation” coming forward as a result of their passage. Most jurisdictions average between zero and nine complaints per year, while Michigan sees about 30. Of those, the overwhelming majority are settled extrajudicially, suggesting to Rhode that the real value of such laws may be educational rather than punitive.

With every such case, she says, the media pays a little more attention to the issue, and we’re one step closer to addressing it head on. Of course, most publications are likely to cover such a story only if it gives them a chance to put a hot banker on their cover. But as Rhode says, every little bit helps.