If you’re a woman and you’ve been fired, maybe it’s because you’re too darn gorgeous.
Attractive businesswomen are seen as less trustworthy, less truthful, and more worthy of being fired than less attractive women. This is according to new research from CU Boulder and Washington State University.
Stefanie Johnson, associate professor at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, and Leah Sheppard, a professor at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business, call this the “femme fatale effect.”
They write “We proposed and found support for the notion that attractive businesswomen are judged as being less truthful than less attractive women for reasons rooted in sexual insecurity.” And they say that this effect goes beyond the notion that good-looking women are seen as less competent and unfit for traditionally male roles.
“Attractive women seem to elicit certain uneasiness or mistrust from others. This is clearly unconscious. You’re not sure why, you just know that you don’t trust her,” Johnson said, according to the CU Boulder website. “This is usually because they are seen as not competent to do the job but our current study shows that there’s something more to it.”
The archetype of the femme fatale dates back to ancient Greece and probably all the way back to early humans. Famous examples in include Circe, who would lure men to her island and turn them into hogs, according to Homer’s Odyssey; Helen of Troy, whose beauty was the catalyst for the Trojan War; and the bible’s Salome, who used her feminine wiles to get her hands on the head of John the Baptist.
This gender stereotype persists alongside the notion that attractive people are better at everything and more deserving of good fortune.
Sheppard said, “there are two dueling stereotypes here. 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.” Until you have a sexually insecure individual, it seems.
Sheppard and Johnson conducted six separate experiments. In four of these, they asked participants to rate the truthfulness of women and men announcing layoffs in fictional news accounts. Regardless of title or industry, attractive women were consistently viewed as less truthful than non-attractive women. This suggests that it has nothing to do with whether the woman is a good “fit” for the role.
In the fifth study, the researchers primed participants to feel sexually secure by asking them to think and write about a time when they felt secure in a relationship and certain that their romantic partner “was faithful and committed to them alone.” Those given this prime ended up thinking attractive women were as truthful as less attractive women.
The final study primed some participants to feel sexually secure, and others to feel sexually insecure. Researchers then asked if participants thought the woman should be fired.
As with the previous study, sexually secure participants found both attractive and less attractive women were equally truthful. Participants primed to feel sexually insecure, however, viewed the attractive women as less truthful, and more deserving of termination.
This was true for both female and male participants. There was no moderating effect of participant gender.
The authors wrote:
Our findings have important implications for women at work, as well as for their organizations. Attractive women could have difficulty attaining credibility and recognition for their accomplishments within their workplaces, while also having to struggle against perceptions that they bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility for negative organizational events to which they are linked.
This brings to mind the tale of Melissa Nelson, an Iowa dental hygienist who was fired in 2010 because her boss found her too attractive. The firing was reportedly encouraged by the dentist’s wife. Despite that fact that Nelson reportedly had no interest in the dentist, and was married with two young children, she lost the job. She sued, alleging discrimination, but lost, and the Iowa Supreme Court later upheld the ruling that Nelson’s firing was legal. The New York Daily News reports that “the all-male court found that bosses can fire employees they see as threats to their marriages, even if the subordinates have not engaged in flirtatious or other inappropriate behavior.”
This is not good news for attractive women.
The authors state that being aware of the stereotype is one step towards addressing the problem. But they also appear to suggest that, because it’s difficult to make people aware of their own biases, even though it may be unfair, the burden falls on attractive women to prove themselves as trustworthy.