Why Smart Women Trade on Their Looks
4 mins read

Why Smart Women Trade on Their Looks

When London School of Economics research fellow Catherine Hakim published Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom in September, the mix of sex, candor, and salary stats created a media buzz. 

Reviews and op-ed pieces appeared in USA Today, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The London Times, India’s Sunday Tribune and The Week.

Hakim’s book offers two basic premises: that attractiveness counts in life, and that women are stupid not to capitalize on this fact.

Fair enough. I have nothing intelligent to add, except the suggestion that this thesis is worth examining and translating to your life, no matter your age, professional track, degree of attractiveness and ambition in life.

Because Hakim writes the truth.

But only to a point.

“Discrimination is part of life itself,” Hakim explained to Slate Magazine during the media flurry. “We discriminate between good restaurants and bad restaurants. We discriminate between people who are intelligent and stupid. We discriminate between people who are competent politicians and incompetent politicians. We discriminate between people who are attractive and unattractive.”

Slate went on to throw out the statistic that ugly people can earn as much as fifteen percent less than attractive ones. What Slate didn’t say:  I bet the most attractive American women probably earn 15 percent less too.

What’s tricky here is that attractiveness can be a double-edge sword for women – for men, not so much. Ask any pretty teenager who walks by a construction site.  The same principles – the fine line between being attractive enough to get attention and being so attractive you get too much attention – apply in every boardroom, city street, and job interview.

My first week at Wharton business school, a gorgeous dark-haired 40-year-old executive from Citibank told a group of female MBA students to use our attractiveness.  “It never hurts to be the first person noticed – and remembered – in any meeting.”  She positioned being a woman, especially a pretty one, as a valuable competitive advantage.

That same week, a 26-year-old BCG consultant explained she had almost been fired from her consulting job for being too pretty.  The company assigned her an executive coach to assess her bosses’ vague and baffling dislike.  Behind closed doors, the coach told her to cut her long blonde hair short, tone down her makeup, and trade her contacts for glasses.  The young woman was promoted three months later and BCG sent her to Wharton, all expenses paid.

Both anecdotes offered valuable insights.

Yes – attractive women (and no doubt men too) get noticed more quickly than their unattractive colleagues. Logically, the bright and shiny have more negotiating leverage and most probably receive larger raises, more lucrative assignments, and nicer offices.  But for women especially, being attractive contains its own vulnerability.  It heightens our femininity, and getting ahead over time often means striking a balance between feminine appeal and an a friendly tomboy air, in order to appeal to everyone.  

Too much beauty, and especially blatant sexual appeal, makes it easy for ambitious colleagues to twist the knife.  “She got the job because she wears short skirts,” which has become the professional equivalent of “she got raped because she was wearing a short skirt.”

You need a spark to get noticed – but there has to be grit and gravitas underneath or that spark can ignite your own funeral pyre.

I argue the same for love.  Wow, it must be great to turn every head in the room.  But do you really want a mate who values physical beauty more than other qualities?  Especially when the inevitable wrinkles and lumps show up?

What’s great about this attractive-but-not-too-attractive balance is that anyone can play in this sandbox.  The beauties can wear glasses and tone done their Christie Brinkley smiles.  We average Janes can invest in makeup, wardrobe assistance, a winning mien.

We all have “erotic capital.”  The wise women have figured out how much of it to dole out, and when.

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