The “femme fatale” has long been glorified in pop-culture. Think Sharon Tate in Basic Instinct. She is the femme fatale personified: The male fantasy transformed into a nightmare.
The mystique of the femme fatale certainly has its draws in media. Yet, the sexualized representation of the femme fatale we see on screen is not as innocuous when attributed to women in the real world.
When applied to the corporate ladder, the femme fatale effect has some pretty toxic consequences, especially for women in high-level positions.
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“Highly attractive women can be perceived as dangerous,” said Leah Sheppard, an assistant professor at W.S.U. and lead author of a paper in the journal Sex Roles. Sheppard has coined this phenomenon the ‘femme fatale effect”: when attractive businesswomen are considered less trustworthy, less truthful and more worthy of being fired than less attractive women.
Sheppard and Stefanie Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, conducted a series of six studies. The first four asked participants to rate the truthfulness of women and men announcing layoffs in fictional news accounts. Regardless of their industry or title, the attractive women were consistently considered less truthful than the non‑attractive women.
In the fifth study, participants were first “primed” by being asked to recall a relationship in which their partner was both committed and trustworthy. The results found that these primed participants now perceived the attractive women as being just as trustworthy as the less attractive women.
The final test was conducted using both the primed, sexually secure participants and the sexually insecure. The secure participants viewed every woman equally, while those primed to feel insecure named the more attractive women as being more worthy of being fired, suggesting that sexual insecurity is the true cause of bias.
The study subverts the notion that beautiful women are merely underestimated or dismissed at the office. Instead, it unveils how bias against attractive women may originate from primal sexual insecurity, jealousy, and fear.
The primal roots of bias
This bias goes way back; it’s rooted in our evolutionary instincts. According to Shepard, primitive men viewed attractive women as an asset, which fueled competition amongst other men. Because beauty was a sort of commodity for men, they worried that their attractiveness may make their mates more inclined to be unfaithful.
While it may seem far stretched to apply this behavior to contemporary office power plays, the logic makes sense. This is why both men and women may discount an attractive colleagues success and may be inclined to think that she “has used her sexuality to get promotions, favorable work assignments, etc,” said Sheppard.
Counteracting the femme fatale effect
Evidence may affirm the added challenge for attractive women in business, but that’s not to say that these hurdles are insurmountable. Oftentimes, people are unconscious of the stereotypes they apply to others. This suggests that a ‘femme fatale’ can shirk this innate bias by adjusting their actions.
Ladders sat down with Anna Poulson the owner of Manhattan’s newest Indo-Danish inspired coffee shop and auxiliary nonprofit, The Good Kind. During the shop’s construction period, Poulson remarked on feeling especially aware of her status as a woman CEO. “The part I didn’t anticipate was how difficult it is as a woman to have to delegate orders to my employees. I hate to generalize, but I did not feel as respected as I should have been,” said Poulson.
Once she recognized this bias, Poulson quickly discovered a powerful tool she used to her advantage: fashion.
“I feel that my clothing choices make a huge difference in how others perceive me. It got to the point where I questioned whether I had to intimidate them [ the construction workers] in order for them to listen to me. As a woman, if I ever show up to the job wearing sneakers, leggings, and a t-shirt, I’m not treated with the same respect if I had worn a pant-suit,” said Poulson.
According to a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, people who wear more formal clothes tend to feel more powerful. Today, the pantsuit is a popular choice among powerful businesswomen, getting a nod from notably powerful women in the industry such as Anna Wintour.
Altering your physical appearance only goes so far. While a polished physical appearance may play a part in perception if you’re considered an attractive woman, Poulson stresses the importance of self-acceptance. “Aspiring entrepreneurs, feel like they need to have a polished exterior. It’s ok not to have this. Ignore any discomfort,” said Poulson.
From an evolutionary standpoint, attractiveness may trigger distrust, but it still has social advantages in the workplace. Attractive women can wield their looks to get certain advantages, whether deserving of them or not.
Establishing trust may be more difficult to come by for attractive women but, “that’s not to say that they can’t do it.” said Sheppard. “It’s just that trust is probably going to form a bit more slowly.”
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