Does Appearance Effect Performance and Progression?

Last week, The New York Times published an article centred on Norway’s beach handball players each being fined 150 euros for choosing to wear shorts, rather than the required bikini bottoms, which are standard within handball. Norway’s team had been planning for weeks to flout the rules to point out the double standard for female athletes, which begs the question, why is appearance so important?

Well, female athletes have long spoken out against the double standards for their uniforms in recent decades. Stating that, women are required to wear more revealing outfits in several sports, including track and field, beach volleyball, badminton, and tennis. This was highlighted in 2011 when the Badminton World Federation decreed that women must wear skirts or dresses to play at the elite level, in order to help revive flagging interest in women’s badminton.

Whilst that last point infers that these decisions are based solely on marketing of the individual sports rather than the wellbeing of the athletes, Janice Forsyth contests this. Janice, who is an associate professor of sociology at Western University in Canada, and a former director of the university’s International Center for Olympic Studies, said that certain uniforms, especially in track and field, and swimming, could give athletes an edge. However, she did concede that this is not the case for all sports, and for handball in particular wearing shorts instead of bikinis would not allow athletes to jump higher, or move faster in the sand. Ms Forsyth stated 'I don’t see how that argument holds any weight, to say that wearing less clothing, as the women are required to do, allows them to be better athletes is just silly.'

But what about in a more corporate setting, what about those whose full time role is within an office for instance? Back in 1985, seemingly appearance did influence your performance, and more so your chances of progression. In a study conducted by Madeline Heilman and Melanie Stopeck, the pair sought to determine whether physical attractiveness differentially affects the performance evaluations for men and women holding managerial and

non-managerial jobs. Their findings showed that attractiveness proved to be advantageous for women in non-managerial positions, but disadvantageous for women in managerial roles. Whereas their male counterparts were seen to suffer from no effects whatsoever. This data supported the idea that effects of appearance in work settings are mediated by gender characterizations, with seemingly inconsistent reactions to attractive and unattractive women in employment situations.

Moving forward to 2011, and appearance continued to influence women's progression. In an article published by Robin Madell, entitled Your Looks and Your Job: Does Appearance Affect Advancement?, Madell stated that being viewed as significantly attractive could especially make it difficult when it comes to co-workers who might have assumptions as to how you got your job. He went on to explain that this resulted in women, who were viewed as significantly attractive, having to work even harder to prove themselves, and even then they were still viewed as a threat rather than an ally by their co-workers due to a mixture of both envy and jealously. To this end Madell stated that, 'the bottom line to getting ahead is that you ideally need to be attractive, but not too attractive'.

Fast forward 10 years to modern day society and such comments sounds ridiculous. It seems incomprehensible that a female employee would not progress within their career because they were deemed to be 'overly attractive', as frankly this has absolutely no impact on their performance. However, in a study produced last year, in 2020, by Prithwiraj Choudhury, Tarun Khanna, Christos Makridis, and Subhradip Sarker, entitled Does Appearance Matter?, the quartet found homophily to still be present within society. Homophily, for those not familiar, literally means 'love of sameness', which is a sociological theory that similar individuals will move toward each other and act in a similar manner. In this situation these individuals and groups would discard those who were different from themselves, or whose characteristics they were unfamiliar with. Henceforth, if a woman was once again viewed as significantly attractive, she would unfortunately still expect to find her progression limited within certain organisations where this behaviour was prevalent.

This thus illustrates that we still have a long way to go in order to break down stereotypes on how appearance influences performance, and progression. Whilst there has no doubt been developments since the article of Madeline Heilman and Melanie Stopeck was first published in 1985, significant steps still need to be taken in order to ensure there are equal chances for women, no matter their appearance. However, if like the Norway handball team other individuals and groups are willing to make a stand against the corporations that so clearly demonstrate preferential treatment for male employees, then hopefully things will progressively change, and improve, for the next generation of women in the workplace.