These days women can be successful in the workplace, but they’re never allowed to forget what really matters: how sexually attractive they are to men. Marianne Cupit asks: are women still being judged on their appearance when it comes to their chosen career?
It is a depressing fact. Despite all her other achievements, a woman is still expected to be a beauty. It is as though society is saying to women “If you are going to be a successful female, you might at least be attractive”. This is a problem that has plagued women throughout history. In Chaucer, The Wife Of Bath is mocked for her aged visage; Keats and the romantic poets praise only the beauties, and in Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, Bathsheba is only allowed to improve her status because of her prettiness. Many men cleverly exploit this system, only treating the most toned, tanned, blonde women with any respect, choosing the cream of the crop to befriend.
On a personal level, none of this matters; men will choose the women they want as partners. Of more concern is the insidious intrusion of aestheticism into the professional sphere. Increasingly, women who have any contact with the public are expected to be made-up and coiffured. The relationship between looks and power has never been more stark.
Some employers chose women as office decoration, rather than to be professional equals. The only two professions where women consistently earn more than their male counterparts are modelling and prostitution. That tells women everything they need to know about the qualities they are valued for.
According to this view, women’s brains are unremarkable compared to their good looks. They are better at being pretty than at being clever, or at least that’s the way some people like to think of it. It is also evident that the entrance of women into the workplace in recent times has produced a reaction of sexualising the working woman. The sexy city secretary, the dominatrix company boss, and the nurse with the fabulous bum are all stereotypes with which we are familiar. These images shift the mind’s eye from a woman’s work to her sexuality, holding us back from the idea that a woman’s work might be interesting, exceptional or important.
In October this year, The Guardian newspaper reported that “Attractive applicants also have a better chance of getting better-paid jobs. And it’s hardly surprising that one survey claimed workers spend a fifth of their salary trying to look good in the office, believing that image is increasingly important to their career.” Surely a woman’s physical appearance has nothing to do with her professional ability, and employers should not have the right to be judge, jury and executioner of the appearance of their workforce.
Last year, Conor Dignam, the editor of the media industry newspaper Broadcast, admitted that “Unattractive broadcasters don’t make it as newsreaders… There is still an element of the beauty parade about it.” This seems ridiculous: If an applicant lost a job because of gender, race and more recently age, they will have redress in the sex, race and age discrimination laws; yet it seems perfectly legal to disqualify a candidate from a job on the basis of looks. Also, an employers’ presumption that they may legitimately judge the attractiveness of female employees contributes to an atmosphere in which women may be sexually harassed.
A recent advice section on LondonCareers.net exhorted “Candidates wishing to move from owning their own companies to working in a big corporate environment will not only need the right finance-related qualifications, but will also need to pay acute attention to resume presentation (CV and cover letter), as well as interviewing skills, physical appearance, etc.”
It appears that only if the physical appearance of an applicant is deemed inappropriate or irrelevant to the job being applied will we see a drop in the correlation of good-looking people winning better jobs, assuming that all other qualifications are equal. Sometimes attractiveness will provide an edge even when the less attractive competitor is better qualified for the position. There is also evidence that once a position has been obtained, less attractive persons have been discriminated against on performance appraisals unless a high level of productivity has been maintained.
In a capitalist culture where demand for work exceeds available jobs, companies need a criterion to distinguish between candidates, and a woman’s physical appearance is the perfect solution. In this sense, female preoccupation with appearance and body insecurity are not merely personal problems; they are political symptoms of an economic culture that requires a pool of underpaid female labour to sustain the world economies and to complete the work men would not be prepared to.
Whilst the spokepeople quoted above use gender neutral language – “applicants”, “broadcasters”, candidates” – in practice, this “lookism” does hit women much harder than men. Witness the difference in age, appearance, clothing choices and grooming styles of male and female newsreaders and TV presenters, for example.
The Office for National Statistics has calculated that the pay gap between the genders increases with age, from 2.10% at age 18 to 21 , to 20.69% at age 40 to 49. Does this indicate a correlation between women’s attractiveness (associated in our culture with youth) and their employability? Certainly at the very time that their wisdom and experience should be celebrated, women are placed on the scrapheap. More recently, the Equal Opportunities Commission have calculated that in the age group 45-64, 55% of women are employed, compared to 91% of men. In the age group 65 or over, the figures are lower; 18% for women and 37% for men.
Those who study the gender pay gap usually consider the key point to equal pay for the same job. But while women may sometimes be paid less for exactly the same job, the debate over equal pay should not be limited to such discrimination. It should be about the devaluation of women and their work within and without the home, about a society that is structured to restrict their opportunities for free economic development. The year-on-year failure to properly compensate women for their work produces a cumulative degradation of their quality of life.
Channel Four have recently begun screening a new comedy entitled Ugly Betty. The whole premise of the show is how ridiculous it is for a woman who doesn’t look like a catwalk model (so she should be skinned alive, obviously), to work for a prestigious fashion magazine. This demonstrates, sadly, that expectations of how the working woman should look – attractive, at all times, of course – are now endemic and accepted.