Attractiveness bias in interviews

Blog, Human Resources, Unconcious bias...


This is an extremley interesting blog, written by a favourite blogger of mine "Caring Paddler". It talks about the fact that we all have un-concious bias in one way or another and how difficult it is to overcome such bias. Have a read and let us know what you think. Please do get in touch with Fjord to talk about how we can help you stamp out unconciou bias from your interview processes.

A few years ago, I undertook a multi-year study of gender bias at the company I worked for.  I’ve talked about this before in previous blogs, but for new readers, the results were fascinating and resulted in us modifying almost all of our HR processes in one way or another. 

I was having dinner with a CHRO last week and during my recounting of the project, was asked a simple question.  “Did you review the effect of attractiveness on gender bias?” I knew the answer to that question was no; but I realised that I didn’t know the answer to the bigger question that my former colleague was asking.  Is being an attractive female, a help or a hinderance when being recruited. 

As a research topic this makes me pretty uncomfortable. But, as regular readers know, I hate to leave a question answered, so I turned to the academic research to see what I could find. 

There are essentially two schools of thought – one is commonly referred to as “What is beautiful is good” (after a paper by Dion, Berscheid & Walster, written in 1972) and the other as “Beauty is beastly” (after a paper by Heilman & Saruwatari, written in 1979).  As is clear from the description, the first paper found that more attractive candidates, either male or female, were more likely to be hired than less attractive candidates.  The second paper found that this generally held true except in the case of attractive females applying for roles which are more typically held by men, in this case being more attractive tended to result in a lower chance of being recruited.  

Of course, there are challenges in applying the findings of this work to today, after all these papers were written 40 years ago.  But the issue is perhaps much more important now – many candidates have profiles on LinkedIn and these are frequently reviewed as part of the hiring decision. 

Fortunately, there has been quite a large volume of work (1) written since these papers. The main consensus of this work is that more attractive individuals (male or female) are believed by recruiters to be more highly qualified, are more likely to be hired and receive higher levels of compensation. However, there is considerable evidence that attractiveness is detrimental for female applicants for male-type roles. 

The answer seems to be that at a subconscious level we may view male-type roles as needing the following characteristics – self-confidence, dominance, ambition, aggression, assertiveness, courage and analytical ability.  We may subconsciously view attractive men as having these in greater levels and an attractive female as having them in lower levels due a higher perceived level of femininity. 

I’m not sure that reading all of this research has made me feel any better about our fallibility, but I’m glad my friend asked me the question.  I will definitely take greater care that our processes work to challenge this paradox. ​

(1) E.g. Paustian-Underdahl & Walker, 2015; Agthe, Sporrle, & Maner, 2010; Hosoda, Stone-Romero & Coats, 2003; Stone, Stone & Dipboye, 1992; Frieze, Olson & Russell, 1991; Quereshi & Kay, 1986; Gilmore, Beehr & Love, 1986.