The Ugliness of Discrimination

Two summers ago I strolled down Newberry Street in Boston, MA with my parents. We proceeded down the street, walking past many restaurants with outdoor patios. Something not-so surprising struck me. Every restaurant we passed employed a very attractive female hostess. It seemed these restaurants were discriminating on the basis of physical appearance.

Of course, this observation is hardly remarkable. The psychology and marketing literatures feature much work showing how people positively respond to physically attractive models. A 1979 Advertising Age article summarized why businesses demand (usually female) physically attractive models: “Beauty may only be skin deep but, for an advertiser, that’s deep enough to make a considerable impression on consumers.” Dion et al. in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology find that physically attractive men and women are perceived to be more sensitive, kind, strong, modest, sociable, and of better character than less attractive individuals. Oregon psychologist Alan Feingold points out that beauty is perceived to be correlated with intelligence, social skills, and health. When physically attractive hosts elicit these positive responses, it’s no wonder restaurants consistently hire them. Holding all else constant, attractive hosts are more “capable” than less attractive hosts.

But this condition isn’t unique to restaurants. Georgetown public policy professor Harry Holzer highlighted in a 1993 survey that, on average, a practically significant number of firms consider beauty when making employment decisions. Eleven percent of firms reported that appearance was “very important” and that 39 percent said appearance was “somewhat important” in their hiring processes.

Keep in mind that United States antidiscrimination law was written to prevent the denial of employment based on “height, weight, and personal appearance.”

Economists find that physically attractive workers, subjectively defined by facial and physical features, are also paid more than employees of average attractiveness. Hamermesh & Biddle 1994 find that after controlling for other wage-determining factors, workers of above-average beauty are paid ten to fifteen percent more than average looking workers. Take note that these results are similar in size to gender and race pay gaps in the U.S.

The economists also find that the ugliness pay-penalty is larger than the beauty pay-premium. Put another way, the pay penalty homely people face is larger in magnitude than the pay premium beautiful people receive, relative to average attractiveness. Beyond the hourly-wage differences and holding all else constant, below-average looking women face a social penalty of typically marrying husbands whose educational attainment and earnings potential is less than theirs. So beauty affects the net earnings of women in both the workplace and at home.

Other studies highlight the magnitude of the pay gap. In a later study of beauty and lawyers’ earnings, Hamermesh & Biddle 1998 report that beauty isn’t just correlated with earnings, but that it causes higher earnings. In this study, Hamermesh & Biddle generate their data on lawyers’ beauty by having a panel of four demographically diverse judges rate the beauty of photographs of the faces of a law school’s entering class.

The earnings gaps they find are large. Above-average looking lawyers working in the private sector are paid about $10,200 more a year than average looking lawyers, and beautiful public sector lawyers are paid $3,200 more than their average looking counterparts. Like restaurant hosts, beautiful lawyers may be more productive than their average-looking lawyers. Since people find beautiful people more trustworthy than average looking people, beautiful trial lawyers may be more capable than average looking lawyers because they can more easily convince juries of their contentions. Either way, these earnings gaps are economically significant and deserve our attention.

Although discrimination on the basis of beauty probably seems less bad than discrimination on the basis of gender or race, it is statistically no less important. In the cases of racial and sexual discrimination, a unifying characteristic unites the mistreated group. This makes organizing against discrimination comparatively easier. But since beauty is subjectively defined and organizing around beauty discrimination requires unattractive people to realize and accept that people perceive them to be homely, little social action has occurred.

I’ll conclude by suggesting one highly interesting, though utterly impractical proposal.

Policymakers might consider levying a flat tax on above-average looking people and transfer the proceeds to below-average looking people. Lawmakers could determine personal beauty by perfecting computer software to calculate beauty (such software does, indeed, exist) and attaching the data to Americans’ social security numbers or drivers licenses. Using computer software would be ideal because it would decrease the possibility of ratings bias. If we assume changing one’s beauty score is not costly and all Americans regardless of income have the same aversion to paying a beauty tax, then if the tax were large enough to incentivize Americans to physically alter their complexion and change their beauty score, it’s possible that the decrease in American net beauty could become costly to Americans who probably derive some utility from living with beautiful people. This psychological cost would have to factor into tax calculations.

But levying a beauty tax isn’t practical. The American tax system is already far too complicated and imposing such a tax effectively would be practically impossible. As English author P.D. James writes, “You could legislate for every kind of discrimination but not this. In everything from jobs to sex the attractive were advantaged, the very plain denigrated and rejected.”

Nevertheless, we should more carefully consider this form of discrimination, as it’s as economically important as other, more popularly considered forms of discrimination.

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