Are your looks holding you back?

Too short? Too tall? Biological economics tries to explain how our looks affect our salaries.

Biological economics explains how appearance affects your salary.

Ignored, derided or dismissed as politically incorrect, the nascent field of “biological economics” struggles for traction among most Western recruiters. However, generally unconstrained by tough anti-discrimination laws, employers in parts of Asia seem to have intuitively guessed some of its key findings.

Job classifieds certainly don’t mince words about the people sought: “No one over 40 can apply” reads one on a Thai website, while another states the position is only for “a young and attractive person”.

How such ads might read if more findings from biological economics become known is anybody’s guess. One study of the vocal pitch of 792 CEOs from Standard and Poor’s 1500 stock index, conducted earlier this year by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the University of California at San Diego, found that those with deeper voices tend to manage larger companies, make more money and stay in the job longer than their reedy-voiced peers.

“These findings suggest that the effects of a deep voice are salient even for the upper echelons of management in corporate America,” Fuqua professor Mohan Venkatachalam said in a formal statement.

One of the first biological economics studies, conducted in 2007, revealed that height plays a role in how much you earn, with every extra inch worth an extra US$1000 in wages, even taking into account experience and education. On the downside, being overweight can be a wallet killer, with a European Commission study showing that for every 10 per cent increase in body mass index, a male loses 3.27 per cent in earnings and a woman 1.86 per cent.

In late 2012 economists Jeff Borland and Andrew Leigh from the University of Melbourne discovered that men with above-average looks earn an average of A$81,750, being 22 per cent more than the average. Alas, males with below-par looks made just A$49,600.

This controversial and – for many recruiters – distinctly uncomfortable area of study has also thrown up some seemingly contradictory findings. For example, The Economist just reported on an experiment conducted by two researchers at Ben-Gurion University and Ariel University Centre in Israel, who tested the importance of self-portrait photographs attached to the resumes of “attractive” and “unattractive” job applicants. Given the base findings of previous biological economics studies, the expectation was that candidates with good looking photos would draw the best response.

"Do I take those reports seriously? I’ve read a few and there must be some element of truth in them, but I don’t know to what extent." – Paul Darby, managing director, Ambition

Yes and no. Handsome men did do better, but the tables turned on attractive women, who needed on average to fire off 11 CVs before getting a call back, compared to just seven for “plain Janes”. Given many organisations’ human resources departments are traditionally managed by women, the researchers extrapolated that feminine jealousy was to blame.

But back to Asia. A few years ago the Chinese navy announced that new recruits would have to be “good-looking, tall and polite” because of their ambassadorial role at foreign ports. Now some Australian companies seem to be following suit, with a new University of Sydney business school survey showing that 85 per cent of hiring managers in major fashion chains rate having “the right appearance” ahead of previous experience (78 per cent) or relevant qualifications (44 per cent).

Dean Davidson, executive general manager – regional Australia, at recruitment firm Hudson concedes there may be a positive bias towards good looking workers in industries such as fashion and entertainment, but “in senior leadership roles, organisations definitely do not make decisions based on those softer elements”.

“It is absolutely all about technical competence, your ability to communicate and lead teams, which has nothing to do with your physical attributes,” he maintains.

Davidson believes at least some of the findings from biological economics can be explained anecdotally through the fact that individuals who hold themselves well and have a sense of confidence and purpose have a greater ability to influence and drive those around them.

“But when you reflect on senior leaders in commerce, industry and even the political arena, from an appearance perspective you just can’t categorise groups of people as having higher success than others,” he says. “Intellect, technical competencies and an ability to communicate and influence at a leadership level are what matters.”

Paul Darby, managing director of Australian recruitment company Ambition, broadly agrees.

“Well, you’re speaking to a bald, big-eared Englishman who seems to have done okay!” he says. “Do I take those reports seriously? I’ve read a few and there must be some element of truth in them, but I don’t know to what extent. I’m not sure why anyone would discriminate positively or otherwise on someone’s physical attributes, but I am sure that it does happen. As a sweeping statement, rightly or wrongly, some of the more successful salespeople – particularly in face-to-face sales – tend to be more attractive than not.”

Like Davidson, however, Darby is adamant that at the end of the day what really matters is the core skills someone can bring to a role.

“Even so, when somebody makes a judgment on whether somebody’s right for a role or not, a big part of that is their physical presence. It might be subconscious. Still, you can only work with what you’ve got and hope that employers will be making their choices based on your ability for the job and capacity to learn – not on how tall, deep-voiced or good looking you are.

“For me, personality and confidence go a long way. That might or might not come as a result of your physical attributes, but confidence in what you are doing and a good knowledge base is what I look for, not what somebody looks like.”

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October 2021
October 2021

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