The unfortunate truth about life today is that you not only have to be smart to get ahead, but you often have to be beautiful too.
California Attorney-General Kamala Harris, described by US President Barack Obama as “the best-looking attorney-general in the country”Photo: Getty Images
That’s not to say that physically unattractive people can’t rule the roost. A scan through the lists of the world’s richest self-made billionaires will unearth plenty of people who wouldn’t have ever got a job on Baywatch.
But if your rise depends on being anointed by a boss (which is the case for most of us), those who are pleasing to the eye have the advantage on those who are equally, if not more, talented.
There is plenty of research that shows tall and attractive men get promoted faster and are paid more but, conversely, women who are regarded as too pretty face a disadvantage once they try to climb above the lower ranks of an organisation.
As juniors, they can be regarded as an adornment but, as the job gets more serious, prettiness becomes equated with being an airhead.
But heaven help the woman who is regarded as unattractive and overweight – they are the most discriminated against of all in the employment market, according to a US-Dutch study.
Obese women are more likely to be denied employment, receive lower salaries, and perceived to have less leadership potential, according to research.
Apparently, we find it much easier to accept a large, plain man than his female equivalent.
Powerful women still judged on looks
It is this sort of conscious and unconscious discrimination – called lookism – that would not be tolerated if it was instead on the basis of race or religion.
And this is why recent comments from US president Barack Obama, calling California’s top law enforcement officer, Kamala Harris, “the best-looking attorney-general in the country” caused such an outcry.
Even though he meant to be charming, it perpetuates the idea that even successful women can be judged on their looks.
Just remember the kind of headlines generated when Christine Lagarde became the first woman to take the helm of the IMF in 2011, including the shameful “Is this the world’s sexiest woman (and the most powerful)?” from The Guardian
It is to be expected that UK tabloid the Daily Mail led its story with: “She is a former synchronised swimming champion, has men fawning over her and is said to enjoy being depicted as a dominatrix who whips bankers.”
Business leaders can also fall into the trap. Josef Ackermann, when he was CEO of Deutsche Bank AG in 2011, announced that his then female-free board his board would “be more colourful and prettier” with a woman.
(Deutsche Bank’s reputation as a champion of women is getting a beating at the moment, with a number of high-profile lawsuits in the US and Britain alleging harassment, retaliation, gender bias and discrimination against pregnant women.)
Buffet weighs in
Meanwhile, revered US billionaire investor, Warren Buffett, used his second-only tweet to argue for gender equality.
After joining the short message service only on April 19, he now has 383,000 followers (and only two updates).
Buffett has added a third woman to his Berkshire Hathaway board of 13 people which is notable because research shows that women cease to be an “oddity” when their numbers rise to three.
But, in terms of creating gender diversity throughout the ranks of his organisation, 82-year-old Buffett has failed, thanks to his penchant for promoting people he has known for a very long time.
Let’s face it, women have been rising through the ranks of investment houses only in the latter part of Buffett’s illustrious career.
However, in an interview on the US ABC network over the weekend, Buffett argues: “I think that – I think we’ve made a terrible mistake in this country and a lot of other countries, too, but in not using all of our talent.
“I mean, if we said we were only going to let people, men 5’10″, or below engage, in three or four occupations, it would be regarded as totally nutty. And for decades, centuries, we relegated women to just a few occupations. And we did not fully use the talent that’s available. And we’re making progress, but we have got a ways to go.”
In an article, written for Fortune and linked to in his tweet, he calls for fellow males to “get on-board”.
“The closer that America comes to fully employing the talents of all its citizens, the greater its output of goods and services will be. We’ve seen what can be accomplished when we use 50 per cent of our human capacity. If you visualise what 100 per cent can do, you’ll join me as an unbridled optimist about America’s future.”