Looking good means you don’t look the goods in some professions

18 April 2012

By Emeline Gaske, Maurice Blackburn Lawyer

Attractive women hold an advantage when seeking employment in traditionally female-dominated jobs, such as nursing, secretarial work, social work and public relations, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Social Psychology.

That same study also found that when it came to traditionally male-dominated employment, such as finance, engineering, and tow truck driving, "attractive" women were considered less suitable for the roles than other women.

This is at odds with the conventional idea that it is easier for attractive people to get ahead in their career, and speaks volumes about society's propensity to judge a person on their looks before considering the person's abilities.

This week we heard about the case of Sarah Kershaw, a personal assistant at Buxton Real Estate, who was sacked because the Directors thought she was "too young" and "too short" to have the "presence to effectively negotiate" at a property auction. Rather than actually forming a view about Ms Kershaw's ability to handle the situation, they assumed that because she didn't have a big physical presence she couldn't command the level of authority and respect they wanted.

So, just how relevant are aesthetic factors in employment?

Good looks don't make someone better at their job, but we regularly hear of employers selecting employees who will fit in with their brand "aesthetic".
Take, for example the 2005 case of eight flight attendants aged between 36 and 56 who were refused employment at Virgin Blue.

To recruit cabin crew, Virgin Blue held group interviews in which the job applicants had to perform a song and dance, and were assessed against various behavioural competencies such as teamwork, communication, and importantly - "Virgin Flair".
Virgin Flair was defined as "a desire to create a memorable, positive experience for customers and the ability to have fun, making it fun for the customer". The applicants argued that through this process Virgin Blue encouraged a work culture that equated youth and young looks with the ability to have fun.

The Queensland Anti-Discrimination Tribunal found that the applicants were unlawfully discriminated against because the recruitment process prevented them from being fairly considered for employment because of their age.

In Victoria, it is unlawful to sack a worker or treat a worker unfavourably because of physical features over which they have little control, such as height, weight, age and subjective ideas of attractiveness.

It's also unlawful to treat a worker unfavourably because of assumptions that are generally made about people with a particular attribute, for example that older workers are less "dynamic" or less able to adapt to technological change.

However, it still happens.

Ultimately, the law provides that workers should only be judged on the quality of the work they do, rather than the way they look.

But what hope do we have of reaching that objective when in the last two weeks both Germaine Greer, a well-known feminist academic, and Tony Abbott, our conservative male opposition leader, have criticised the country's Prime Minister because of the cut of her jackets and the size of her backside?

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