Is Appearance-Based Discrimination At The Workplace Real?

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woman looking in mirror
4 min read

When Michael Scott makes offensive comments about his employees’ appearances, and blatantly favours the more conventionally “good looking” workers in The Office, we laugh it off as edgy humour. When Miranda Priestly finally begins to take Andy seriously after her “makeover’ in The Devil Wears Prada, we call the moment iconic. But when we encounter appearance-based discrimination in our workplaces in reality, what do we do?

My manager once told me about a time she was returning from a client meeting with an ex-boss, and he remarked, “The least that that woman could have done is wax her arms. It’s common courtesy.” 

This idea that it is “common courtesy” that a  woman adhere to the conventionally approved parameters of female beauty even (or especially) in a workplace, is not an isolated opinion. Appearances are often given unwarranted importance in workplaces, and “attractiveness” widely treated as a basis for discriminatory behaviour, especially for women.

 “Lookism” In The Workplace Is A Common Occurrence

“Lookism” refers to discriminatory behaviour towards people one considers unattractive. While this bias is talked about, and accepted, in relation to dating, it is also widespread, and greatly damaging, in the workplace.

The issue doesn’t lie in finding certain people more attractive than others, but discriminating based on these physical differences in the workplace.

It can be related to a psychological cognitive bias called the “Halo Effect”, a variation of which states that people will often think attractive individuals are smarter, funnier, kinder, or more healthy, than more average looking people.

The consequence of this cognitive bias is a beauty premium that tends to be applied in workplaces, where people are quicker to dismiss errors, praise good work, and strive to be liked and accepted, by people they find “good looking”. 

A study by London Guildhall University found that attractive people make as much as 11-15% more than their less attractive co-workers.

This clearly indicates that not only is there a “premium” for attractiveness, but also a penalty for plainness.

Less “attractive” people tend to not be as visible in workplaces. Studies show that they need to work much harder to receive equal opportunities and acknowledgement as their more attractive counterparts. They also tend to inspire greater negative feedback for smaller errors.

Appearance-Based Discrimination At The Workplace Is Particularly Applicable, And Detrimental To, Women

According to Inc.com, “More than 1 in 4 employees have experienced discrimination due to their looks. Most often, it happened to women.”

Women already face a large number of gendered challenges to visibility and growth at work, without this added beauty barrier. They also tend to conventionally be held to more unrealistic and patriarchal ideals of “attractiveness” and “beauty”

Women’s beauty is often rated by their “femininity” – a social construct whose affinity for leaner, long-haired, clean-shaven, and fairer women can lead to body offensive and racist behaviour as well. 

We asked some of our followers if they had ever faced discrimination at work because of their looks. The answers point to how deeply entrenched these biases are, and how unconscious.

Working women in India commonly experience being made fun of for facial and body hair, and are overlooked for being overweight. “Fair” skin in India continues to be cherished and glorified. Women with darker complexions are often automatically knocked down a few points in the Indian “beauty scale”. This colour-based discrimination is historically tied to people’s social and biological background, making the discrimination inherently casteist and classist, as well. 

From being rejected in interviews because they didn’t ‘look the part’, to being called ‘fat and ugly’ during performance appraisals, women have faced it all. 

From hair styles to body hair, wearing “too much” to “too little” make-up, wearing “figure-flattering” clothes to “dressing decently”, having “chittiyaan kalaiyyan” to having slender “kalaiyyan” – the standards of beauty for women are outrageously sexist, but still widely used as superficial marks of what makes an individual look impressive and professional. 

Thus, there is an imbalance created between how “successful” someone appears versus someone’s actual or potential merit.

The Bias For Women Is Also A Double-Edged Sword

 While fitting into the “attractive” category can be beneficial in some ways, it can also be detrimental for women in the workplace in other ways.

“Attractive” women are often assumed  to be less competent or smart, based on the demeaning assumption that, given their physical appeal, they must never have needed to be those things. 

“No woman is both smart and beautiful.” This sexist idea of a woman’s beauty and intellect necessarily clashing is as ridiculous as it is pervasive. 

“Feminine” and “attractive” women might find that they have to work twice as hard to prove that they are capable – especially in a male-dominated workplace. 

From being made to feel like they’ve been hired solely for aesthetic appeal, to being given particularly difficult clients to handle, especially in client servicing roles – with the idea being that clients will be more appeased by a good looking woman – beauty standards are continually used to undermine women irrespective of where they fall in the ‘conventional beauty meter’. 

What Can We Do To Deal With Appearance-Based Discrimination

Organisational laws to protect workers against appearance-based discrimination rarely exist. This is mostly because framing and implementing laws based on subjective beauty, and that will most probably require employees to categorise themselves based on attractiveness, is impossible and can further reinforce stereotypes. 

Some companies have started to conduct blind interviews, to ensure there is no bias related to physicality. This isn’t very feasible, however, as a candidate’s demeanour can be very telling for some recruiters, and the visual connection can ensure better conversational connection between the candidate and recruiter.

There exist professional training workshops that focus on recognising and unlearning unconscious biases practiced in workplaces. Participate in one, or arrange for the workshop to be conducted in your organisation. 

What we can do for now is raise our voice, question and call out discriminatory behaviour. If you’re passed over for a project you feel you were better suited for, politely and confidently question why you were not considered. If you have opinions and ideas, don’t hesitate to voice them, and ensure they’re heard without others interrupting you. If someone makes an offensive remark based on appearances, even one disguised as casual banter or a joke, call them out on it. When questioned, the chances of them reflecting on the appearance-based roots of their discriminatory behaviour, even if they try to defend it, are higher. 

Share your experiences with appearance based discrimination, so people  become more aware, not only of the pervasive issue, but also of their own biases. 

“Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”, but it’s time we called the discriminating beholders at our workplaces out.

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Sanjana writes far too little to call herself a writer and reads far too much pop-culture fiction to call herself a reader. She once received a Special Mention for the Best Young Critic Award by MAMI, and refuses to stop talking about it. Her love for films, art, and theatre runs deep and is only borderline pretentious. She detests writing in third person but can be convinced to engage in it occasionally.

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