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How Your Looks Affect Your Salary

By the time you're in high school, the fact that your looks can affect your love life and popularity is well-established. But it doesn't end there, according to Daniel S. Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas. His new book, Beauty Pays, outlines research that show salary and earning power can be determined, in part, by beauty (or lack of it).

Last week my colleague, Sarah Lorge Butler, wrote about her insightful conversation with him as it related to her family finances and career issues. After reading her interview, I had a few additional questions -- particularly if Hamermesh suggests plastic surgery or legal action to those discriminated against based on their lack of outer beauty, and how the findings played across gender lines. Here's what he said:

Why do you think beautiful people earn more? Hamermesh: People may more attention to them, listen to them better. Also, good-looking people become more self-confident as a result of their looks and prior treatment by others. Finally, we as customers, employers, and fellow employees prefer to be around good-looking people and are willing to pay for the privilege.

Were your findings gender neutral? Hamermesh: In most studies the effects of looks on earnings are bigger among men than women.

Interesting--why do you think men are more affected? Hamermesh: I explain it by pointing out that most men feel obligated to work, while women to some extent still have the option of staying home. So if you're a "bad-looking" woman and know the market will discriminate against you, you might stay at home. And in fact, evidence shows that better-looking women are more likely than average-looking women to be working, who are in turn more likely than bad-looking women to be working.

So should plain-looking people get plastic surgery to get ahead in the workplace? Hamermesh: Evidence suggests that this doesn't help very much. They might make you feel better, but they won't change very much how others perceive your looks. People should instead take advantage of characteristics they have in abundance -- intelligence, strength, personality, etc.

You discussed legal action as an option for fighting "looks discrimination" in a recent New York Times article. Is this really likely to happen? Hamermesh: Yes and no. Yes, in that we already offer protections for characteristics that are no less readily changed than really bad looks. No, in that if we were to expand protection to this group, I would imagine it would reduce our resources and energies devoted to legal protections for other groups that I personally view as being more deserving politically.

Do you agree with Hamermesh's comments? Do beautiful people have a salary advantage? And are men more likely to be affected because less attractive women might choose to not work? Please sign in below and share your thoughts.
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