Business Women: Is Beauty a Workplace Beast?
For business women, is beauty a blessing or are curves a curse? Does beauty give you (excuse the pun) a leg up or hurt your chances to climb the corporate ladder in a pencil skirt?
Beautiful Debrahlee Lorenzana, 33, is in the “beauty is a curse” camp. Lorenzana is suing Citigroup on the grounds that she was fired solely because her bosses thought she was too sexy (yes, she has her own Facebook fan page, with more than 5,000 fans, complete with many “sexy” pictures, which causes some to question her motives). Her lawsuit and resulting stardom has been chronicled in much detail by the Village Voice (more than 1,000 comments to the question: Too Hot for Citibank?).
According to the Village Voice article, Is This Woman Too Hot To Be a Banker?:
This is the way Debbie Lorenzana tells it: Her bosses told her they couldn’t concentrate on their work because her appearance was too distracting. They ordered her to stop wearing turtlenecks. She was also forbidden to wear pencil skirts, three-inch heels or fitted business suits. Lorenza, a 33-year-old single mom, pointed out female colleagues whose clothing was far more revealing than hers: “They said their body shapes were different from mine and I drew too much attention,” she says.
As Lorenzana’s lawsuit puts it, her bosses told her that “as a result of the shape of her figure, such clothes were purportedly ‘too distracting’ for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear.”
In a statement to Forbes.com, Citibank said “this lawsuit is without merit and we will defend against it vigorously.”
Research Says Beauty is a Benefit
While Lorenzana battles in court and seeks public support for her claims of discrimination based on her beauty, research and — in an interesting twist of fate — a newly published book, The Beauty Bias, suggests that it is the “unattractive” who may suffer from discrimination at work.
Deborah Rhode, a Stanford law professor and author of The Beauty Bias, makes the case that law should protect the unattractive. “[Rhode] provides overwhelming evidence of bias against the overweight, the unattractive and the aging,” according to a Slate book review. “And while some of these cases may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or race discrimination law, most are not. For the most part, we tolerate appearance based discrimination as unfortunate but innevitable.”
Research suggests that Rhode is right — at least in linking beauty to career success.
People rated as good-looking made more money, were better educated and were more confident in their abilities, according to a University of Florida study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Still (thank goodness), brains and confidence were most relevant to earnings, the study found.
Still, researchers said they were troubled by how much attractiveness counts as an effect on income.
“Countless parents have assured their children that it is the inside that counts, with the ‘inside’ presumably referring to one’s personality and intelligence,” said Timothy Judge, a University of Florida management professor, in a press release announcing the research results. “While the inside clearly counts when it comes to income, attractiveness makes a difference too.”
Brains + Beauty: A Powerful Combination
While Lorenzana, who reportedly made about $70,000 at Citigroup, may have lost her job as a result of being labeled too pretty to perform, her long-term career prognosis looks bright. In fact, she now looks like a marketing genius — using her beauty as both a crutch as well as an asset.
In addition to her photo shoots and Facebook fans, Lorenzana has made a number of high-profile public and TV appearances (see AssociatedPress video), including guest spots on Today and Good Morning America.
“Lorenzana — who’s admitted to having had plastic surgery to enhance her now-famous assets — was also at the Sugar Dining Den & Social Club . . . Thursday night, meeting with owner Brian Rosenberg to discuss forming Women Against Sexual Harassment,” reports the New York Post.
Drawn to Beauty
Our susceptibility to beauty, according to the University of Florida researchers, stems from early human evolution. But study authors said they are troubled “to observe that such primitive instincts still play an important role in life outcomes.”
In her Los Angeles Times blog, Meghan Daum writes that bias against the non-attractive is unforgivable, but she has little sympathy for Lorenzana:
“It’s a beauty that is never owned outright but instead leased and under constant threat of repossession, a beauty that’s only as good as the last spray-on tan and the last teeth-whitening session. In other words, it’s the same brand of beauty that gets shoved down our throats every time we read about celebrities or watch a makeover show on TV — the kind that tells us that being hot is not only crucial but also a full-time job.”
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