Beauty and the Bias: India Inc needs more sensitivity

Although some sectors that are customer facing lay emphasis on physical attributes quite openly, even back-end jobs often have executives who apparently get judged by their peers and seniors by how they look.
Although some sectors that are customer facing lay emphasis on physical attributes quite openly, even back-end jobs often have executives who apparently get judged by their peers and seniors by how they look.

Summary

  • The bias of ‘lookism’ is arguably getting accentuated as we get used to and mistakenly accept modifications of our physical appearance online as mere adjustments of reality. While it can’t be tackled head on, we must acknowledge the bias and hope heightened sensitivity plays social self-regulator.

Swetha Totapally, regional director, Asia-Pacific, Dalberg Advisers, a consulting firm, needed help with her saree. The hotel staff who helped her was in her early twenties, and like it often happens, between pins and pleats, the two women started exchanging stories about their work. Totapally got to know that the young employee on the last leg of her night shift at the five-star hotel did not want to work in the hospitality sector. She had a degree from an air-hostess training academy, but was rejected and asked to re-apply after a year. She did not need more training or any other qualification. She just had to return for interviews without her... well, braces.

Dental braces are not a safety hazard. They just did not “look good," and she could try again once her “crooked teeth" were “fixed." A 20-something lost out on a job opportunity that she had trained for because she did not fit the desired beauty standards. At a time when corporates are holding in-house sessions and audits on diversity, equity and inclusion, a primitive gauge for screening a candidate’s potential, physical appearance, still seems embedded deeply in our and therefore our corporate culture’s DNA.

This beauty bias, often called ‘lookism,’ is arguably getting accentuated as we get used to and mistakenly accept artificial enhancements of physical beauty around us as mere adjustments of reality. Software touch-ups are common. Through apps that go beyond filtering out blotches, social-media pressure and a looks fixation has led many to modify their appearance to fit a standard mould. And a set of crooked teeth can become an anomaly that needs to be covered up or removed to protect the shiny, bright, youthful and aspirational image of a company.

Although some sectors that are customer facing lay emphasis on physical attributes quite openly, even back-end jobs often have executives who apparently get judged by their peers and seniors by how they look.

Shyam Sadasivan, a Bengaluru-based management coach, has lately seen body image play a key role among middle to senior executives with 15-20 years of work experience. “They question their executive presence. Their height and weight starts playing a significant role and physical characteristics become part of the executive’s ‘reputation’," notes Sadasivan. While instances abound of CXOs on fitness drives, perhaps a result of snarky corporate-world remarks on personal weight being a management test, this does not bode well for better workplace acceptance or inclusivity.

It is ironical that while there is so much effort taken to strip away any formal mention of one’s physical attributes, it is often the foremost aspect of individuals that people notice in face-to-face encounters. A host of studies have shown that good-looking people have an unfair advantage, but this bias is rarely a subject of discussion, if at all. For the most part, it is treated as just another unquestionable. There are no seminars, group discussions or huddles to figure out ways to acknowledge this particular bias and work to minimize it. That the bias exists, however, is clear. And it is strengthening.

With great beauty, sometimes comes extra pressure. A Harvard study titled Why Beauty Matters in 2005 noted that “Workers of above average beauty earn about 10 to 15 percent more than workers of below average beauty. The size of this beauty premium is economically significant and comparable to the race and gender gaps in the US labor market." It also highlighted how employers tend to expect better performance from those who look better than their peers. But then, with more interpersonal interactions, the chances of ‘good-lookers’ upping their work game is higher too.

Surprisingly, social pressure to look well groomed is not gender normative, as the need to make a good first impression is universal.

Could the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) help fix the beauty bias? Companies are working on ways to hire without biases and candidates could be screened by bots that are looks-indifferent. But then, face-to-face interview-free recruitments are rare.

Lookism cannot be blamed on the grooming industry or dress codes set by companies. Each business has its own sectoral and client-related challenges, and businesses with elements of glamour can argue that complete looks-neutrality would impact their market performance.

While eradicating biases is not a feasible solution in the short-term, efforts could at least be made to acknowledge them and let heightened sensitivity to their unfairness play the role of a social self-regulator. In a hyper competitive job market , nobody can afford to forfeit an edge, so beneficiaries of lookism has little incentive to act against it.

Physical attributes are like the joker in a deck of genetic cards. As everyone cannot count on that luck, its role must be reduced under the principle of equal opportunity.

The superficiality of lookism needs to be emphasized over and over. “Because you’re worth it," goes the advertising tagline of a popular brand. How true this is of India Inc’s recruitments and rewards, unfortunately, is not entirely clear.

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