April 10, 2009
Doctor Jones's Office Hours
Good-looking people enjoy what economists/sociologists call a “beauty premium.” They get paid more and are seen as better at their jobs than people of average attractiveness. It works for men and for women. Men, for example, get a premium for being taller, in shape, handsome, and with a nice head of hair.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. A new Israeli study suggests that male professors get a beauty bump, but female professors don’t. The researchers guess that this is rooted in a “contradiction between… role images and gender images”: somehow, female attractiveness is seen as incongruous with the paternal, traditional scholar/educator role of the professor, where male attractiveness isn’t — particularly, it seems, for female students. That’s the idea, anyways.
I don’t endorse this conclusion, but there’s definitely something going on here. A couple of things that came to my mind on reading this:
- This was a study of evaluations by students — it would be VERY interesting to see how the beauty premium affects judgments by peers, colleagues, with respect to scholarship, tenure, hiring, etc. Having been on the job market recently, it’s become very clear to me how much weight is placed on establishing a personal rapport with your potential colleagues during your visit, most of which is devoted to eating and parties and talking somewhat peripherally about scholarship. Anytime hiring decisions depend not least on one’s performance during a high-stakes dinner party, it seems natural that these kinds of not-always-conscious judgments play a big role.
- Let me put forward the idea that role, gender, and attractiveness are really super-connected. Let me put it this way. There’s a kind of alternative tweedy attractiveness that’s different from generic attractiveness. Sharp glasses might be by general acclaim hotter on a professor than on a TV presenter (or an archaeologist-adventurer) exactly because glasses (and the kind of attractiveness they project) hew more closely to the role we assign that person. So if you show people a photograph of someone and say “this person is a professor,” they might evaluate their attractiveness differently than if you said “X is a lawyer, Y is an athlete, Z is a musician,” and so forth.
- I always say that a teacher needs to project competence, trustworthiness, and sympathy — are these, ultimately, just different ways of saying one must be handsome? They certainly don’t seem entirely unrelated. At any rate, I now have a professional interest in worrying about my hair color (along with my weight and wardrobe) — my bright-red lion’s mane has always been my claim to fame.