Monday, November 19, 2007

Beauty and the Benefits

Economic and social science researchers have analyzed the characteristics of individuals across a wide variety of professions to determine what factors make a person successful. Results consistently show that good-looking, tall, thin people tend to make more money than their unsightly or overweight counterparts; on average beautiful people earn about 5 percent more an hour than their less attractive colleagues. One study removed variables like education and experience from the equation and continued to find that the looks premium exists across all occupations. While these studies compared the peer-to-peer pay ratios they did not analyze how looks could affect success across professions; are a higher proportion of beautiful people in well paying jobs and does that broaden the actual earnings gap between the attractive and the ugly?

Studies confirm that private sector lawyers earn more then government-supported counterparts; it is probably safe to hypothesize that other professions would yield the same results. People who routinely face clients; those in sales, marketing and executive positions, earn more money due to the perceived impact to an organization then those who work in “behind the scenes” roles. Beyond jobs that directly “require” good looks because of their position in front of clients, multiple factors contribute to the beauty gap that are not disciminatory. It is likely that the higher self-esteem usually held by those of above average looks drives greater success and therefore a higher income; higher self-esteem helps people achieve better roles and ask for raises and promotions.

How much of the earnings gap between genders is associated with beauty rather then breasts? Our society puts more pressure on women to maintain a certain level of looks through diet, exercise, makeup, clothes and botox that is not placed upon men. Typically we are more lenient of men who forego maintaining their waistlines and their hairy eyebrows; a double standard that is a contributing factor to women making 71 cents to every man’s dollar. Less attractive men are seen much more often in positions of authority then their homely female counterparts.

As companies large and small struggle with the mounting costs of health insurance and other health related spend executives are focusing on how lifestyle choices drive their healthcare spend. Many companies openly deny jobs to applicants who use tobacco products claiming their smoking yields much higher insurance premiums; tobacco use discrimination is completely legal in most states. Those who engage in tobacco use are the first group on the receiving end of higher premiums, penalties or pink slips due to the ever increasing medical costs; overweight individuals are the next demographic. Potential employers could easily begin using medical costs as an excuse to deny hiring those with weight problems. Even if laws are put in place to protect the rights of the overweight it is nearly impossible to prove employment discrimination due to weight; while employers now ask if someone smokes, it usually does not require much questioning to determine if an employee or applicant is overweight. The beauty gap on earnings will be further compounded as employers look to squeeze those perceived as less healthy out of their organizations.

Working for a health and wellness company is yielding some very interesting observations on how weight and looks effect employment and upward mobility. We routinely work with companies wanting to address their healthcare spend by assisting people with health and wellness needs. Without any obvious discrimination, many have experienced embarrassing comments on how our image should reflect the goals of the organization; to engage and educate people to take control of their health through better lifestyle choices and condition management. While people making the comments might not understand the full impact of their words, those of us who struggle daily with our weight hear how our size does not sell our products. Even people who are never seen by clients feel pressure to lose weight to maintain our product image.

This new reason for weight discrimination, the amount overweight people cost companies in health related expenses, gives employers a legal and financially backed excuse to deny employment to an otherwise qualified subset of the population. The thin and the beautiful, whose wages are already inflated, will continue to experience greater financial success and unlike age, gender, racial and religious discrimination it will be difficult to combat; it is hard to prove employment or pay was denied due to below average looks or above average clothes size.

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