In 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court decided a case that got a lot of people talking. A dentist had fired his longtime dental assistant, telling her she was so attractive he found it “distracting.” The firing followed a history of sexually tinged comments by the dentist, and complaints from his wife who felt the woman was “a big threat to our marriage.”
The assistant sued for unlawful sex discrimination, but the court upheld the firing as legal. Another court had confronted a similar situation some years earlier–attractive employee, unhappy wife–reaching the same conclusion.
It turns out it’s not just wives who distrust attractive women. According to a new study, attractive businesswomen are seen as less trustworthy than their peers. The research, published today in the journal Sex Roles, also posits a reason why. They dubbed it “The Femme Fatale Effect.” “Highly attractive women can be considered dangerous,” says Leah D. Sheppard, an assistant professor of management at Washington State University and a coauthor of the study. The research runs counter to another stereotype, which is that attractive people have all the advantages. “Even though attractiveness is generally viewed as a good thing,” Sheppard says, “there’s a very nuanced story when it comes to women.”
For the study, the researchers gathered images of professional men and women and used crowdsourcing to rate their attractiveness. Then they asked study participants to read a fictional news account of a layoff announcement that included quotes from a company spokesperson, along with the spokesperson’s photo. Different participant groups saw different photos–attractive, unattractive; male, female–and then were asked to rate the spokesperson’s truthfulness and trustworthiness.
When the spokesperson was depicted as an attractive female, participants deemed them to be less truthful than an unattractive female. These findings held whether the company in question was a manufacturing plant (a stereotypically male field) or a hospital announcing nursing layoffs; whether the spokesperson was a public relations officer (perceived as more of a female role) or an executive. They held, whether the study subjects making the judgments were male or female.
The researchers had a theory about why, which brings us back to the dentist’s wife. Could feelings of sexual insecurity be behind the negative judgments about these fictional businesswomen? To test this theory, the researchers “primed” some participants beforehand by asking them to recount a time when they felt secure in their romantic relationship. Other participants were asked to recount feeling sexually insecure; still others to recount feeling generally good about themselves. When primed to feel sexually secure, participants rated attractive and unattractive businesswomen’s truthfulness about the same.
This study involved quick perceptions of strangers’ photos, not real life, Sheppard pointed out, so “it’s hard to know how this would play out in the workplace” when there’s more of a chance to get to know someone.