The “sexy lady businesswoman” is a stereotype, to be sure. Think of any number of movies or TV shows, from “Scandal” to “Network” to “House of Cards.” Call it the “femme fatale effect,” says researchers from Washington State University and the University of Colorado, who conducted a series of experiments that revealed a bias against attractive women in business. According to the results, they’re less trustworthy, less truthful, and more at risk of being fired.
The reasons are rooted in sexual insecurity, the researchers say, from both women and men.
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“Highly attractive women can be perceived as dangerous and that matters when we are assessing things like how much we trust them and whether we believe that what they are saying is truthful,” said Leah Sheppard, an assistant professor of management in the WSU Carson College of Business, in a release. She is the lead author of a paper in the journal Sex Roles.
While being beautiful may be useful in procuring a mate, it doesn’t help in the workplace, especially a business environment.
“For women there are certain contexts in which they don’t seem to benefit from their beauty,” said Sheppard.
The Femme Fatale experiment
The study involved six experiments using 1,202 U.S. adults recruited online. The experiments focused on determining how women’s attractiveness affected the subject’s opinion of them in a workplace setting.
The first four experiments involved the participants reading simulated newspaper articles about a layoff. Included was a photograph of a spokesperson making a statement. In one case, the news was changed to be positive. The photo was swapped out for different participants to include a very attractive woman, a less attractive woman, a very attractive man, and a less attractive man. The industries of the spokesperson were changed as well, from masculine to feminine roles. In all cases, the photo of the attractive woman was considered less truthful than the photo of the less attractive woman or the man. In many cases, the less attractive woman had the advantage of being seen as more truthful.
The last two experiments relied on “priming,” a way to get the participants into a certain emotional state.
The fifth experiment primed participants to feel sexually secure by thinking about a time when they felt totally secure and their romantic partner was committed to them alone. They were told to write about why they felt so secure, how this made them feel, and how it influenced their performance at work.
Some participants were primed for “general” security, by being asked to think about a time where they felt very good about themselves. They were asked to write about the same thing the first group was.
Both sets of participants then read the simulated newspaper article about the layoff, with a photo of someone described as a senior executive – two photos of a very attractive female, two photos of a less attractive female.
Most interestingly, the participants that were primed to feel sexually secure ended up finding the attractive woman to be as truthful.
The sixth experiment sought to replicate the fifth experiment and did.
The results suggest that sexual insecurity plays a role, researchers write.
If attractive women remain aware of other people’s closely-held stereotypes around beauty, they may be able to fight off stereotyping that creates the femme fatale effect, Sheppard said. However, the hard work remains up to them, not the people doing the stereotyping.
“They’re going to be challenged in terms of building trust,” she said. “That’s not to say that they can’t do it. It’s just that trust is probably going to form a bit more slowly.”
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