Pretty is as pretty does? Maybe according to some. But when viewed through the lens of economics, beauty may be your ticket to getting hired, earning more and landing a wealthier spouse.
Or so says Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of the new book "Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful."
According to his calculations, a good-looking person will earn, on average, $230,000 more over the course of a lifetime than someone who is perceived as less attractive.
We didn't like the sound of this, so we decided to speak with Hamermesh about his controversial stance. We sat down with him to discuss why being unattractive hurts men more than women at work, and the one factor that will influence what you earn even more than beauty.
You've pioneered the field of pulchronomics—or the economics of beauty. Why?
I started working in this stuff 20 years ago. I had seen some data about beauty and realized that beauty is scarcity, and since economics is about scarcity, this is an economic field of study. Before, there were only studies that had been done with very small sample sizes, and there wasn't much analysis of the findings. Now there are a huge number of people working on research.
Does everyone agree on who is beautiful?
We don’t all agree perfectly on who’s a 5, and who’s a 1, but we do agree pretty closely, even across cultures.
Symmetry is part of it, but you can’t do this mechanically. Is it age? It’s no question—yes. I say it in the book, and show it with data: If you ask someone to rate someone’s looks adjusted for age, we simply can’t do it. We rate younger people higher. It’s especially true for women, unfortunately.
LearnVest is a site dedicated to helping women improve their financial picture. Economically speaking, how do our looks factor in?
According to the studies I've done, beauty does have an impact on how wealthy a spouse you'll attract, especially for women. It also affects how much you'll earn. In fact, it affects women’s ability to make more, but, interestingly, not as much as it does for men.
You wrote that in the workplace there's a 'premium for beauty, and a penalty for bad looks.' Can you explain?
It’s part and parcel of the same thing. If you’re better-looking than average, you’ll do better than the average. If you’re worse-looking, you’ll do worse than the average.
In terms of earnings, the top one-third most attractive women received 8% more than average-looking women. The lowest-rated women by looks received 4% lower pay than average.
For men, the comparable figures are a 4% raise for good-looking men and a 13% penalty for those judged least attractive. So salary-wise, men get punished more than women for unattractiveness.
But there is another interesting finding that I wrote about in a paper yet to be published, about the relation between gender, beauty and happiness. Does being attractive make men or women happier—and by how much? Beauty matters more for happiness among women than it does for men.
What else do we know about how beauty affects us in this day and age?
The biggest effect on the non-pretty wasn't in how much they were paid, or whether they got married, but the difference in how much their partner makes.
But you also cite instances of 'bimboism'—cases where being too beautiful can cost you the job.
There was a paper written this last winter in which an Israeli guy sent around résumés, and the very best-looking women had trouble getting hired. But that’s hypothetical. Most of the studies show that you keep on doing better the higher you march up the scale of looks.
There is one factor that outweighs even how pretty we are. What is it?
Each additional year of education represents a 10% increase in earning potential. There are so many other things that you can do and take advantage of, like education, which has the biggest effect.
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So, Where Does That Leave Us?
Obviously, LearnVest isn't down with all this emphasis on looks in the workplace.
Sure, looking good helps, or else the airwaves wouldn't be filled with shows telling us what (or what not) to wear, and plastic surgery wouldn't be a multi-billion dollar industry. But we also know that you can shape your own financial destiny, and doing so has little to do with your waist-to-hip ratio.
However, in his study, Hamermesh didn't control for competence, those who asked for a raise and other factors affecting salaries. Our tips?
- We think that beauty does not predetermine financial success in the workplace. A highly competent person will still succeed much more than an incompetent person who happens to be attractive.
- As Hamermesh says, education has an even greater impact on your finances than beauty does. Higher education can be pretty steep, so if you're considering going back to school, use our grad school calculator to help you figure out if the cost will be worth the increased earnings.
- One of the other biggest ways to earn more is, quite simply, to ask for a raise. Looking beyond the difference between "pretty people" and those who aren't, we're more concerned with the pay gap between men and women. Prevent yourself from plateauing before your male peers.
- On a daily basis, make sure you're communicating well. We spoke to a career coach who believes the most important on-the-ground office skill is communication (she credits this ability with scoring her a job at Goldman Sachs when she wasn't the most qualified candidate!).
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