Plain fact: more attractive women are branded ‘less truthful’
‘Femme fatale effect’ taps into primal feelings of sexual insecurity, jealousy and fear in both men and women
Good-looking women in business get a bad deal: they are seen as less trustworthy, less truthful and more deserving of being fired, a new study at Washington State University has found.
The “femme fatale effect”, as lead author Leah Sheppard and her team have dubbed it, suggests that women confront challenges in the workplace beyond conforming to masculine roles. “Rather, the effect taps into more primal feelings of sexual insecurity, jealousy and fear among both men and women,” she said.
“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 Sheppard, an assistant professor of management in the Carson College of Business at the university.
The team said the femme fatale effect, which dates back to ancient Greece, persists “despite decades of feminism and a growing awareness of gender stereotypes”.
In SA, one fifth of executives were women in 2018 but Top 40 companies had only one CEO, the annual Jack Hammer report found. SA’s Top 40 listed companies and another 40 medium-size to large organisations were reviewed for this.
The percentage of female executives was up by 5% to 22% from 2015, but the Top 40 CEO status was unchanged: only Maria Ramos of Absa (who retired at the end of February).
It seems if you look like former Miss SA Basetsana Kumalo, you have to fight harder to get to the top – or set up your own company, which she did with JSE-listed Tswelopele Productions, becoming the youngest black director.
The US research, published in the journal Sex Roles, bought two “duelling stereotypes” into focus. Sheppard said: “You have the ‘what is beautiful is good’ stereotype, meaning that in general attractive people should fare better across their lifespan. We can say that that’s generally true.
“It becomes more nuanced when we look at gender,” she added. “For women there are certain contexts in which they don’t seem to benefit from their beauty.”
Sheppard and associate professor Stefanie Johnson, at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, made their findings after conducting six separate tests. Their image of a “professional woman” came from a Google image search and their attractiveness was rated by participants in an online crowdsourcing platform, Amazon's Mechanical Turk.
They got participants to rate the truthfulness of men and women announcing retrenchments in fictional news accounts – and attractive women were consistently seen as less truthful than less attractive women.
The researchers put participants in the fifth and sixth studies into an “emotional state that can colour their perspective” – either sexually secure or sexually insecure, and generally secure or not.
Those primed to be sexually secure did not have a bias against attractive women, while the insecure participants saw them as less truthful and more worthy of being fired.
Sheppard said both men and other women think it’s unfair, “if not deceitful”, that striking women can use their looks to get advantages at work. She said tackling this prejudice falls to attractive women, however unfair, and they could try to be more transparent about the problem.
Beautiful women are not doomed to dusty corners even though in the arts “the list of man-eaters, vamps and dark-hearted sirens is long”, as Sheppard notes.
“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.”