Sunday, May 23, 2010

Discrimination against the Ugly

Discrimination against the fat and ugly is pervasive:
Unattractive people are less likely to be hired and promoted, and they earn lower salaries, even in fields in which looks have no obvious relationship to professional duties. (In one study, economists Jeff Biddle and Daniel Hamermesh estimated that for lawyers, such prejudice can translate to a pay cut of as much as 12 percent.)
But put me down against any law banning discrimination on this basis. It just sounds like a gigantic mess. The key to getting ahead in a lot of fields is playing a part well, acting and looking like a successful whatever-it-is. For many and maybe most professions, being non-ugly, non-fat and non-short are part of the image; for a few, being beautiful is. But looks are not everything. It is perfectly possible for a fat, short, or ugly person to convey a professional demeanor. Clothes, accessories, posture, tone of voice and so on matter a lot, too. Every young man entering business is told that a firm handshake is essential to success. Most of the studies about bias in how people rank job candidates and the like are based on photographs, and that is not a good way to assess how we will respond to real people.

I have learned to project a professional image in a variety of settings, but I had to learn it. I grant that it is easier for a tall, non-fat, non-ugly man to do this, but it is still a trick. I suspect that part of the problem for many unattractive people is that, subjected to harassment as children and young adults, the never learn the head up, confident, friendly, gladhanding, one-of-the-boys/girls manner that helps so much in getting ahead. And as for all the complaints about discrimination against people with dreadlocks or too many piercings or hip-hop style and what have you -- yes, people complain about this all the time -- too bad. If you care more about your style than getting ahead, good for you, but this is just one of many areas in life that you can't have both ways. How is a lawcourt supposed to sort out "legitimate" reasons for disliking a person -- whatever those are -- from physical type?

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