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"Femme Fatale effect": Attractive businesswomen perceived as less trustworthy

For businesswomen, looks can be a liability
  • A new study of workplace attitudes finds that attractive businesswomen are seen as less trustworthy and deemed more deserving of losing their jobs.
  • For men, the study found that good looks were neither an advantage nor a liability.
  • The study's author finds bias against attractive women at work is rooted in study participants' own sexual insecurity.
  • When participants were encouraged to feel romantically secure, it neutralized the "femme fatale effect."  

Being good-looking can be a liability in workplace -- if you're a woman. While a seductive smile can confer many benefits in life, a new study finds a negative correlation between a businesswoman's attractiveness and how truthful her colleagues perceive her as being. Females endowed with beauty are also seen as more deserving of termination from their jobs.

The study, "The Femme Fatale Effect: Attractiveness is a Liability for Businesswomen's Perceived Truthfulness, Trust, and Deservingness of Termination," was published in the journal Sex Roles. It finds this bias is rooted in sexual insecurity, according to its co-author, Leah Sheppard. 

"If we are feeling somewhat threatened, we are likely projecting on the individual, so perhaps we are less likely to trust them or more likely to think that they could deceive us," Sheppard told CBS MoneyWatch. "So when we are asked about how truthful they are being, it could manifest in those types of judgements," she said.

With images of professional women sourced from Google, researchers asked participants to rate the women's level of attractiveness. Participants then rated the truthfulness of men and women announcing a company's layoffs in made-up scenarios. The results showed that attractiveness predicted the trustworthiness of female leaders delivering negative organizational news, but the same was not true for men. 

A second test revealed the limitations of the so-called "lack-of-fit" theory, which suggests that attractive women are perceived as more feminine and thus less fit for roles that are considered masculine, like a mechanical engineer, for example. It showed that the effect persisted and applied to women occupying traditionally feminine roles, as well. The effect was eliminated, however, when participants were primed to feel sexually secure.

Evolutionary vs. social theories

The link between a woman's sexual insecurity and her inclination to distrust an attractive female is rooted in both social and evolutionary theories. Some stereotypes portray attractive females as having used their feminine wiles to "get to places they didn't deserve to get to," Sheppard said. That bias is in some ways a manifestation of jealousy. 

"People think they've used their attractiveness to pull the wool over peoples' eyes, or charm them to achieve benefits or positions they didn't necessarily deserve," she said. For men, good looks were neither an advantage nor a liability, according to the study. 

As far as evolutionary theories go, attractiveness is a trait we use to compete for a potential mate, Sheppard explained. "It is highly valued in potential mates, that's why they would elicit this romantic threat," she said. "We determined that this mechanism is at least partially responsible because in later studies, when we primed participants to feel romantically secure, we are able to neutralize the 'Femme fatale effect.'"

Earning trust

Attractive businesswomen could have to overcome an unexpected hurdle in the workplace, the report suggests. "When it comes to initial impressions, attractive women might be regarded with feelings of mistrust and skepticism, so there might be a barrier they need to break through in terms of trust," Sheppard said.

"Presumably, once you get to know somebody and learn to trust them, the mistrust would go away," she added. "But first impressions matter a lot, whether we are aware of it or not. We use them to have a long-term impact on our perceptions of a person over time."

But it shouldn't fall entirely on attractive women to bear the whole responsibility for earning their colleagues' trust. "I think on both sides we want people to say, this is a bias I could potentially have. How do I not let this bias color my perception of this person?" Sheppard said.

"Real impact in the political realm"

The findings could also have implications beyond the workplace. First impressions can color our opinion of someone we're evaluating, like a politician running for office. 

"In areas where we don't necessarily get to know people, a lot of the time we let our gut determine how we feel about them," Sheppard said. "That can predict how we go vote or whether or not we decide to learn more about a candidate's platform. These first impressions can have a real impact in the political realm."