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Beauty Is The Last Prejudice
I was annoyed as I heard a women giggling and carrying on as she and three other guys were talking two isles down from where I was sitting. Further away, I could also hear a man talking on the phone as his words drifted across the room helped by his deep bassy voice that was more irritating than dragging your finger nails across a chalk board. I had seen the women before, but I did not know her. She was a tall slim attractive blond. I didn't know the man with the deep voice either, but I had seen him also, an older gentlemen, but someone who was very tall and physically fit.
This was the trend that I had seen at this company. If you are beautiful enough to walk the runway, you will be be hired. If you are beautiful enough to walk the runway you will be promoted. If you are beautiful enough to walk the runway, other necessary qualifications become somewhat irrelevant. The interesting and somewhat disturbing truth is that I am not talking about a modeling agency, a cosmetic company, or an advertising company, I am talking about an engineering company. A company that stresses looks no different than the industries that I just mentioned.
I laughed at many of the aspects of this company, like one of the directors, who was an obsessed hard core body builder. The executive who was told to go home because he came to work wearing a brown suit. The two or three people that I met that got promoted just because they lost weight. And a women, who again, was attractive, had an interview that lasted twice as long as planned and not once did they talk about the job and the necessary qualifications. Of course, she got hired.
It becomes more funny when it becomes so predictable, like the the slightly overweight executive director that I had seen occasionally in meetings. He was an older person with striking looks. About five months later I saw him again and I had to look twice. It looked like his head was on someone else's body! He was in perfect shape where he probably did a crash course with Tony Horton's P90X exercise program. I mused, wondering when he was going to be promoted. It only took a few months later, where he coveted one of the rare vice president positions.
I joke about the runway aspect of beauty but shockingly even this is actually true at this company, where some of the women have walked the runway for charity. Yes, I can't say it enough, beauty will get you everywhere, losing weight will get you promoted.
Generally, beauty is the last prejudice, a profound statement that surprising came from a Star Trek episode. It was episode 5, season 3. The air date was October 18, 1968. It was written by Jean Lisette Aroeste. In the episode, Captain Kirk made the statement at a dinner party honoring one of his guests on the Enterprise. In the utopian world of Star Trek where everyone, regardless of race or ethnic background, is accepted and treated as equals, beauty is still a prejudice. Obviously, even in our fantasies and fiction, beauty is everything. In a bit of irony, the title of this episode says it all, “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”
The Ugly Truth
I can poke fun at the company that I worked for but this is really a serious problem. We are wired for beauty. Unfortunately, there is too much evidence to back this up. Here is some of the research:
Physical Attractiveness Bias in Hiring: What is Beautiful Is Good by Comila Shahani-Denning, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Hofstra University.
The author points out the benefits of attractiveness which is coined, “what is beautiful is good”. However, she does explore the alternative, “beauty is beastly” where physical attractiveness can be a detriment to employment. This mostly occurs when women pursued careers in previously male dominant jobs. But, in the conclusion of her article, she states that there is no support for the “beauty is beastly” aspect. I have to agree with her on this one. At the company that I worked for, where engineering was previously a male dominant profession, the number of strikingly attractive women being hired as engineers is incredible.
Some of the perceived qualities of attractive people over unattractive people are:
- More sociable
- More successful
- More qualified
- More intelligent
- More healthy
- Generally happier
Just like the star trek episode that I mentioned earlier, I was surprised by one of the authors comments, where she stated that there is legislation banning discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, disability, and age, but there is no legislation concerning bias toward physical attractiveness. Yes, “beauty is the last prejudice”.
The implications of this bias can be detrimental to the performance of an organization when they fall for the perceived notion that attractive people are smarter and more qualified. In most cases, they even command higher salaries than their non attractive counterparts.
The author does point out that attractive individuals are held more accountable when they don't perform on the job since they are perceived to be better qualified, but I don't agree with this. I have seen the exact opposite, where, if you are not attractive, you will lose your job.
Finally, the number of references that the author calls out supporting her research is amazing. There are over four decades of articles that have been written supporting this.
Parents Care More For Pretty Children Than For Ugly Children by researchers at the University of Alberta.
I remember when this research first came out. It was disturbing and the people that did the research got a lot of flak for it. It first appeared in the New York Times. The researchers spent time watching parents in 14 supermarkets. They rated children on a 10 point scale for attractiveness. When either the mother or father was shopping, this is what they found concerning their child being strapped safely into the shopping cart:
- Unattractive children, 4 percent were strapped in.
- Attractive children, 13.3 percent were strapped in.
- Unattractive children, none were strapped in.
- Attractive children, 12.5 percent were strapped in.
Generally, unattractive children were also often allowed to wander more than 10 feet away and out of sight of their parents.
I know that so many people on forums attacked this research and yes, as I mentioned already, I found it disturbing also. But it bothered me because I knew it was true! Years before I knew anything about any kind of research about this subject, I found out for myself how beauty even plays a part in families. It makes perfect sense. If it is a proven factor in the hiring and employment practices of a company then the same dynamic has to be present in the family too.
Wait till the children get older and then you will see how the University of Alberta's research is correct. Over the years, I have run into quite a few people who had to constantly try to prove themselves to their parents in the face of more attractive siblings.
Why There Are No Flying Cars
Yes, I have worked for the company that loves the runway, but by no means do I fit in. I have never actually been directly employed by them. I have simply been a contractor who is assigned a specific job and when it is finished, I either hopefully get a new contract or I am unemployed. So far I have had four contracts with them. Right now I am not employed by them.
What I have seen is, if you come in as a contractor and you are attractive, you will eventually be hired in direct. Otherwise you will not be hired in ever. Since I myself can't win the beauty contest, I was never asked to go direct.
I mention this, because even though I can find their obsession with beauty amusing, there obviously is a dark side to all of this. What about us average people that don't stand a chance? In Comila Shahani-Denning article mentioned earlier, the author clearly states in her conclusion that “...training hiring managers to avoid this bias is one way to reduce such inequity.”
This is so true! There are so many people that I have seen with incredible talent that have been short changed because they don't have the look. I have come to realize, hire the ugly people and we will cure cancer. Hire the ugly people and we will be able to travel to the stars. Hire the ugly people and we will have flying cars.
My Own Personal Account
I have seen too much of the bad side of all of this. For example, during my second contract stint, I met another contract employee. His name was Mark. He had a wonderful personality with a fantastic sense of humor. But more importantly, he was very smart and dedicated. I remember when he got his first project. He was happy about it and he worked for about two years until it abruptly and unfairly came to an end. He simply asked for only one week off for vacation. When he got back he was let go. They said he took too much time off even though they originally approved it in the first place! But when you are in your late forties, when you are balding, when you are short and overweight, you don't stand a chance.
Even if you are direct, you are not immune either. I knew a direct employ whose name was John. When John originally hired in he wasn't overweight but as the years passed, as it does for many of us, he put on quite a bit of weight. Every time he wanted and asked to make a career move he had the door slammed in his face. He even told me this, that he had been shot down so many times when he tried to advance his career within the company. Eventually, he got fed up and quit and found another job. I wonder if they ever realized the talent that they lost because John was one of the most proactive people that I had ever known. He was always on top of everything, solving problems way before they ever got out of control. But I don't think they realized it because John didn't fit the criteria of attractive anymore.
The single most horrible aspect has to do with (again perceived) intelligence. If you are beautiful, you are intelligent. If you are average or ugly, you are stupid. No matter what you do, or what you achieve, you will always be considered stupid. There is simply no way out.
I Have Stupid Written On My Forehead
Even though I never really ever talked to Frank, I already knew a lot about him and none of it was good. There was such a revolving door of people, fellow coworkers, who got in line to slam Frank in every aspect. I never once heard anything positive. Frank was always late on projects. Frank had no passion for the job. Frank was lazy. Frank never finished or tackled or addressed some of the serious problems in the department. Frank was useless. Frank was stupid.
Since he was a direct employee, a lot of the insults came from the many contractors who couldn't understand how he ever got hired in. Unfortunately, there was even some remarks about his ethnic background, stating that is how he got in. The interesting aspect to this thinking is that people will make racist remarks simply to justify their belief that only beautiful people are smart.
When it comes to looks, Frank was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of being overweight, he was tall and slim. I am the same way, but Frank was even thinner than me. When it comes to beauty, I do think men are given a little bit more leeway than women. For example, if you are average looking but you have a deep booming masculine voice, you're hired! Unfortunately, Frank didn't have this either. He was quiet and soft spoken.
Even though practically all mangers succumb to their genetics looking for attractive people to hire, occasionally a manager comes along who rises above it all, using his or her brain to overcome this primal urge, to truly hire someone with talent. This is how Frank was hired.
I know this is true because when I finally got to know Frank, I found out, to my surprise, that he absolutely was a very intelligent person. When you get bombarded constantly by one coworker after another, making negative statements about someone, you eventually begin to believe it, especially when that is your only source of information about them. When I got assigned to a project where I had to work with Frank, I finally learned the truth.
Frank's job title was subject matter expert. He was one of about a dozen direct people filling these positions. These were the go to people for us contractors for info. When the economy took a downturn some years back, Frank was the only one demoted. I heard they did it to teach him a lesson so in the future he would be a better employee. He should not have been put in this position in the first place. I know of four or five of the other subject matter experts that should have been demoted, but weren't.
When you are in this situation, where you are considered stupid because you don't meet some criteria on how you should look, you will never escape it. Outside of work, Frank had accomplished quite a bit, and he never let it interfere with his job.
Initially, when I heard about some of his other accomplishments, I was amazed. I finally thought that everyone would finally see the light, but no, they didn't. They still looked down on Frank as someone who was incompetent, despite the fact that he started an investment club. Despite the fact that he was smart enough to invest his money that he didn't have to work anymore. Despite the fact that he wrote a self help book that was published. Despite the fact that he got it listed on Amazon with good ratings. Despite the fact that he was asked to do book signings at local bookstores. His fellow employees knew about it because the manager of the department sent an email to everyone showing all the bookstores where he was going to be.
Frank could have won the Nobel Prize ten times over and he still would have had his distractors, thinking that he was stupid. Once you have stupid written on your forehead because you can't walk the runway, you will always have stupid written on your forehead.
I admit that I am passionate about this subject because it does tread on our legal system. As a person ages, their beauty fades. There is no legislation against discrimination based on beauty but there is legislation against age discrimination.
In the company that loves the runway, that I worked for as a contractor, I overheard a conversation that was rather alarming. Two lead engineers sat down in their manager's cube and started talking about possible candidates to bring in for an interview. They were somewhat loud, so I easily heard what they were saying. Obviously all three of them were looking over resumes, because one of the lead engineers mentioned that he favored one of the older more seasoned candidates since he could come into the organization and hit the floor running. They were desperate, because they were missing their deadlines. There simply was not enough people to do the work in the department. But what I heard next shocked me and it was further driven home because the manager definitely knew what he was saying was wrong. The tone suddenly became hushed. He spoke in a near whisper. He didn't want that candidate. He wanted someone “young and dynamic”.
Most of the people in the surrounding cubes were either in meetings, or hadn't come into work yet. I sat roughly diagonally from him across the isle. He wasn't my manager, so I didn't know him that well. From where I sat, I was out of the line of site so I don't think he knew I was there. When he made this statement, his tone was much lower, but I could definitely hear him. After that, I couldn't hear anything more said, because I think one of the lead engineers pointed out to him that they were not exactly alone.
More importantly, I have seen too much gross incompetence. In one case, there was this very attractive women that was hired in direct. As part of her probation period, she had to perform the same job function as us contractors for about six months. If everything went well, she would be promoted to the level of subject matter expert. Well, her promotion was a done deal regardless of her performance. This became evident when her duties were transferred back to one of the contract employees. The test plans that she wrote were so messed up but the contractor who inherited them was blamed for the mistakes. He was a contractor that gave 10 years of service to the company and was always ranked in the top quarter when it came to performance. But after he was blamed for her mistakes, he was put on a six month probation. He was told, shape up or you are fired. The million dollar question, why did she even have to go through this probationary period when she wasn't going to learn from her mistakes anyway, since she wasn't going to be held accountable? When the contract employee tried to state that she wrote the procedures, he was told by company management not to go there!
There is a financial angle to this story also. When her test plans were released, engineering didn't think they would work so they were planning to clear one of the benches to test her procedures. When the contractor fixed the test plans, engineering cancelled the bench test. Bench time can cost thousands of dollars an hour because it takes time away from other critical product testing. The consumers pays for it in higher product costs when these mistakes are made.
I remember an interview that I had, not too long ago, with a manager that was, I would say, average looking. I was amazed at his passion for his job. He was showing me state diagrams that they were using to develop software. He was thrilled with creating them. I don't want to mention what their product line is, but the company that he works for is at the top of its game right now. They are producing some incredible quality products.
Maybe this is what we need. We need to genuinely inspire passion, not for ourselves, but for creating new things that can help improve our lives. This is our hallmark, our creativity and our imagination. I think when we use these to the fullest, then we will be able to turn off the primal part of our brains and rise above the obsession with looks. Then we may soon have flying cars.
Update To Beauty Is The Last Prejudice
Sometimes you wonder if you are looking through biased eyes when you are passionate about something, especially when it involves an injustice. Are you seeing something that is not there? Are you exagerating aspects about a person or organization that really aren’t that bad? Or simply, are you singling out an organization for an injustice that other organizations are comitting also and equally as well. I have thought about this when thinking about the engineering and manufacturing company that loves the runway. Are they really that bad when it comes to beauty and age discrimination? The possibility about bias can be a concern considering that I have worked for this company for over a decade with very little information about the outside world.
However, since the two years that I initially published this hub I have now worked for one of their competitors. What I found was quite refreshing. It was nice to see “normal” people. No hardcore body builders in high levels of management. No men with shaved heads and goatees compensating for male pattern baldness. No women with perfect teeth, perfect hair, and perfect figures, rising rapidly through the ranks. Yes, there were attractive people at the competitor, but they didn’t dominate the management roles because no one moved into management with less than fifteen years of experience. At the competitor you got promoted by hard work and experience rather than by losing weight or being “young and dynamic”.
The competitor gave me hope that not all companies discriminate against looks and age. My new experience has also allowed me to see a more serious consequence of discriminating against looks and age. It is the sense of arrogance and the lack of civility. Two aspects that are more than prevalent at the company that loves the runway.
This became more apparent when I worked for the competitor. There were two fellow coworkers who left to go work for the company that loves the runway, but after only a few months they wanted to return. The competing company was great to work for where you were treated the same no matter if you were a contract employee or a direct employee. This was a company that took civility seriously to the point where management required an online class on civility with a video from the chairmen stating that this was important because a pleasant work environment promotes creativity.
This company has never wavered in establishing this great work environment. Sometime later, I found out from a recruiter that this company would not let any employee quit even if he or she were a contractor because of a hostile work environment. They would work it out, disciplining the offending employee or manager if necessary.
In contrast, I would find out personally that the company that loves the runway would do the exact opposite. They boast of a great work environment but when it comes to civility they have no concept of what that is or what it means.
After my contract ended at the competing company I was called in for an interview which went extremely well. I was proud of how how well I did and I knew with certainty that I was going to get the job. The problem, it was again with the company that loves the runway. I had now choice. I was unemployed.
From the moment the job started, the harrassment began. I had to deal with an engineer who I believe had been left behind. He had the typical look for this company in his attempt to get ahead. He was balding, but he kept his hair extremely short, and he had the typical gotee. But he was possibly in his mid fifties and somewhat overweight putting a break on any possible promotion. Worse, his manager was more than twenty years younger than him. One day I over heard him saying in a whisper, “oh, he got promoted,” when he found out that a fellow coworker roughly thirty years his junior was promoted to manager.
He obviously was disgruntled and I had to deal with his simmering anger. In one instance, he actually put his hands on the arms of my chair, bent over and looked at me, telling me to stop swiveling my chair. He did this twice to me and after the second time, an hour later, in a meeting, he sat his chair and swiveled in it the entire time.
Even though I was proud to have landed the job, I ended up quitting after only four weeks. I couldn’t deal with him and the stress. I had cancer twice in my life with stress possibly being one of the factors, so I couldn’t afford to get sick again. I was told by the contracting firm that I would be called in to talk about what happened, that the company took any accusation of a hostile work environment seriously, but after one year, I still have not gotten that call or message.
Obviously, the company that loves the runway didn’t care how they treated their contract workers since they were not part of the elite direct employees. I found out how true this was when I briefly had access to their employee directory six months later where I noticed whole groups of contracting workers that were missing. In one group, I noticed that five or six contract employees where no longer working there. Two of the original eight were now direct, the most beautiful of the original group, but what would you expect from the company that loves the runway. When I was hired, I obviously had to take a drug test but it ended up being something much more. Right before I went to the clinic, the contracting company warned me that I would have more tests other than the drug test. This came as a surprise and that was an understatement when I fould out what else they wanted from me. They wanted my weight and height!
I know the lie. They would claim that they want to hire healthy people because their health costs would be lower but I was coming in as an employee of a contracting company. The company that I was going to work for was not paying my health benefits. Health benefits was not the answer. They wanted my height and weight so they could gage to see if I could potentially be a direct employee sometime in the future. They want their tall, slim, and beautiful people.
When I think about everything that has happened, I sure do miss working for the competing company, where everyone is normal looking, where everyone is nice and courteous, where contracting and direct employees are treated the same, where overweight people, bald people and average looking individuals are managers at all levels, and where older contract workers can be hired in direct. This is how it should be at all companies.