I read a BBC article yesterday on how ‘Ugly people in Argentina are striking back.’ A man named Gonzalo Otalora has been “ugly” all his life and he’s taken it upon himself to bridge the gap between the beautiful and the ugly so to speak. He sees beauty as a “natural advantage,” and is determined that beautiful people be taxed in order to offset the inherent advantages they have over ugly people such as himself.
My first thought upon reading this? Wow. That’s some strong feeling. The guy candidly admits to the BBC that all his life he has been a victim of his looks. “I was a child with thick glasses, spots and braces,” he said. “The kids made fun of me at school… Later the girls rejected me in the discos. And then when I was looking for work, I felt so ugly and insecure that I was rejected again and left without a job.”
The article really got me thinking. Are these advantages that beautiful people have really so very advantageous? Are they particularly pronounced in the workplace or at least in the often tumultuous and competitive road to getting a job? Does a finely chiseled face command more authority than an awkward, saggy one? Does a strapping, barrel chested man come upon better business opportunities than his skinnier colleagues? And if so, are the decisions to bestow such advantages conscious?
In a paper entitled Beauty and the Labor Market, University of Texas Professor Daniel S. Hamermesh and Michigan State University Professor Jeff Biddle argue that:
“Holding constant demographic and labor-market characteristics, plain people earn less than people of average looks, who earn less than the good-looking. The penalty for plainness is 5 to 10 percent, slightly larger than the premium for beauty. The effects are slightly larger for men than women; but unattractive women are less likely than others to participate in the labor force and are more likely to be married to men with unexpectedly low human capital.”
In another report entitled “Beauty, Productivity and Discrimination: Lawyers’, Looks and Lucre,” the two professors present evidence showing that how handsome a male attorney is has a directly bearing on how likely he is to attain early partnership directly correlates with how handsome he is. They could not clearly deduce whether the effect was because clients discriminate or because better-looking lawyers were able to obtain greater pecuniary gains for their clients.
In 2000, a London Guildhall University study revealed that men considered to be unattractive earn 15% less, equal to £3,000 on a salary of £20,000. It showed that “unattractive” secretaries earn some 15% less than prettier colleagues, and plain women on average, earn 11% less than men.
A CareerBuilders.com article points out that it’s not just looks — size matters too. It cites a University of Pittsburgh survey of male graduates, which reveals that the tallest students had an average starting salary that was 12 percent higher than their shorter colleagues.
The London Guidhall study showed that across all professions tall men earned an extra £1,000 for every £10,000 earned by short men.
Researcher Barry Harper, of the London Guildhall University told the BBC that something needed to be done. “The effects of appearance are generally widespread suggesting they arise from prejudice and in particular, employer discrimination. There is an urgent need for business and government to review their equal opportunities policy to address this issue.”
Okay. So does all this mean that Gonzalo Otalora is right? If being ugly, short or overweight affects your pay packet, as statistics certainly seem to indicate, should good-looking people really be taxed for the sake of their disadvantaged counterparts? My first instinct is to say no, the whole idea is ludicrous and if people really are talented or hardworking or smart enough, well they’ll get to where they deserve to be, good looking or not. Some could construe this as smacking faintly of idealism or naiveté however, and I’d be curious to know what other people think. The fact that ideas about beauty are necessarily subjective and amorphous, at least to a certain degree, adds further complexity to the issue.
Something to keep in mind is that the aforementioned research seems to refer mostly to people within companies and organizations. Looks seem to have little bearing on successful entrepreneurs or those of self-made fortune. A cursory glance at Forbes’ billionaires list is evidence enough that you don’t always need good looks to make money.