"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hired–And Fired–For Being Beautiful

Among road warriors Asian Airlines have always been considered to be among the best in the world for international travel.  They are efficient, have excellent food, service and amenities, comfortable lounges, and beautiful stewardesses. 

American carriers, particularly those with some longevity like United or American, miss the mark on all counts. As competition has increased and fares gone down, labor costs have remained high.  US Airlines cannot summarily fire older workers and hire younger, less expensive, and more attractive ones.  In broad legal and social terms, this seems right, for some measure of protection should be afforded workers, especially in an age of debilitated labor unions.

However, American laws put US carriers at a disadvantage.  Not only do they expressly forbid discrimination on the basis of age but indirectly on the basis of looks.  Under sexual discrimination statutes the law has not taken kindly to any employer who gets rid of an employee because she is too ugly for his tastes or hires an attractive woman over applicants who are less well-endowed.  So far, so good. It would be very capricious and unfair indeed if a floor boss dismissed a female pipe-fitter because of her looks.   Physical beauty has nothing to do with welding sections of pipe. The same holds true for many, if not most positions. If beauty has nothing to do with job performance, then hiring and firing on the basis of physical appeal is wrong.

What happens, however, if there is an economic value to beauty? All other things equal – safety, service, procedure – men, still the majority of business travelers, will always prefer to be served by attractive women.  Fantasy though it may be, these weary road warriors respond to the smiles, lithe curves, and soft, youthful beauty of stewardesses as though the attention were meant just for them.  If a man has a choice, why would he not choose to be in the hands of lithe, almond-eyed beautiful Sri Lankan women?

Deregulation has allowed some changes in recruitment policy for US carriers. Open-shop airlines can recruit young women, save on labor costs, and apply their own selective criteria on beauty as long as they are not too obvious about it. There are enough young, attractive female candidates for most flight attendant jobs that airlines have no trouble picking the most competent and the most beautiful.  Being incorporated outside the US where discrimination laws are less punitive helps.

It is not clear why some businesses, like airlines, have to go through hoops to hire what they understand to be a valued commodity in a competitive marketplace, while others do not.  No one would expect fashion model agencies to hire old crones; or Hollywood producers to select leading ladies with no regards to looks. Of course, anyone getting into the beauty game runs risks.  The stunningly beautiful actress who does well on her screen test may have trouble learning her lines, be abusive, and drink.  Yet in many commercial enterprises not only does beauty sell, but beauty is what sells. Even a cursory glance at American advertising reveals that beauty sells everything from tires to high fashion.

Most of the American economy, however, is in grey area – an area between high fashion and pipe-fitters. As the US becomes even more a service economy, more employees are required to greet the public. All other things being equal, why shouldn’t an employer hire a particularly attractive receptionist, dental assistant, or bank clerk if he thinks it will increase sales?

The value of beauty works in many ways.  There is no need for beauty at CVS, for example, and employers can disregard this quality entirely. Because working in a chain pharmacy is so low on the labor exchange, attractive women have already cashed in on their looks and found a more congenial place for their attributes. Whether we like it or not, beauty is a valued commodity to be bought and sold at market rates, beneficial to both buyer and seller.

Why is this an issue at all? One reason is a commonly distorted sense of fairness and equality.  According to current received wisdom, all people are equal – black, white, fat, thin, young, old, beautiful or unattractive – and no economic or social preference should be accorded to any special group. Men should only value women’s intelligence, competence, and performance, not her beauty.

However, most objective critics dismiss this argument entirely.  As Michael Kimmel reports in the New York Times (7.17.13)
Research suggests that people who are judged physically attractive are seen as more competent and more socially graceful than those who aren’t; they have more friends and more sex; and they make more money. One economic study found a 5 percent bonus for being in the top third in the looks department (as assessed by a set of observers), and a 7 to 9 percent penalty for being in the bottom 9 percent.
This is not surprising at all.  A beautiful child receives compliments from an early age, is treated differently and specially.  As she gets older, her well of confidence keeps getting filled with the attentions of admirers, employers, and sexual partners.  She knows that when she walks into a job interview, there is little doubt that she has an advantage over most other candidates. Beauty and its ranking are as much a part of our culture – any culture – as any other attribute.

In the movie Broadcast News, Holly Hunter hates the William Hurt character because he is attractive but slow.  He has only risen as far as he has because of his looks.  She is smart, aggressive, and intimidating.  What she doesn’t understand is that the confidence that Hurt has, derived from his beauty, is just what the public is looking for. When he is on-air reading the news, people are drawn to his apparent strength and command.  She has devalued beauty in favor of intelligence and loses.

It is axiomatic that television’s stock-in-trade is beauty.  For all the concerns about discrimination, beauty sells whether it is network anchor or shill for hair products. America stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world in its popular and universal promotion of youthful beauty.
There may be finally some gumption in corporate America, saying what the PC police have forbidden for a few decades – beauty is a commodity with a very definite, quantifiable value:
Think of all those mannequin-thin sales representatives for pharmaceutical companies, whose job is to persuade physicians, a great many of them men, to prescribe their products. Think of companies like American Apparel, whose top executive, Dov Charney, has been accused of firing employees that he judges unattractive. The writer Naomi Wolf has called this the “professional beauty quotient” — a standard of beauty that tacitly operates as an occupational qualification (as flight attendants have complained). The glass ceiling is reinforced by a looking glass.
Smart people, whose genetic determination is no different than those who are attractive, are always chosen over less smart ones.  Swimmers are chosen, when possible, for their disproportionately long arms and torso (think Michael Phelps).  Although a swimmer with short arms and an average torso may go on to some success, it is unlikely.  This correlation between physical attributes and performance is common in athletics. Short-term performance alone is not the be-all and end-all of recruitment.

The reason why Kimmel wrote his article was because of a court case brought by a beautiful woman who was dismissed by her employer because she was too beautiful. She was a distraction, the employer said, a threat to his marriage, and she had to go. The courts surprisingly agreed:
Stunningly, an Iowa district court dismissed the case, contending that she was fired “not because of her gender but because she was a threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight.” Naturally, she appealed, but last week the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision (for the second time), maintaining its view that an employee “may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”
If you can fire women for being attractive, then you certainly have the right to hire them for it.

The days of Cotton Mather feminist Puritanism may be numbered.  In days past, when an attractive woman entered the elevator, all men would nervously look up at the ceiling or down at the floor lest they be accosted for ‘unwanted attention’.  Today, although in America one may not see the same smiling, nodding approval and appreciation of women seen in Italy, at least looking at the new lift rider is at least a step in the right direction.

Beauty is a fact.  It is a tradable commodity, a factor in natural selection, a variable in most social and commercial transactions, and the first and last thing we remember about people.  It is no surprise at all that some of the most famous paintings and sculptures in history have been of women. Artists since Greek and Roman times saw a sublimity in the female form.

Appreciating female beauty and appreciating its economic value does not preclude an appreciation and acknowledgment of a woman's intelligence, creativity, insight, or savvy.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

1 comment:

  1. I would bet a million bucks that the author of this article is not beautiful - either inside or out.


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