Stanford Law School professor Deborah Rhode recently invited us to examine the extent to which hiring professionals are "Prejudiced toward pretty" in an article of that name, published in the National Law Journal. Rhode cited the study "Lawyers' Looks and Lucre," in which "economists Jeff Biddle and Daniel Hamermesh estimated that attractiveness may account for as much as a 12% difference in attorneys' earnings." She also referenced a post in the Above the Law blog in which a self-identified hiring professional in the legal field admitted to writing 'This person is attractive' on the applicant's cover letter before passing her on." (Are Attractive People Better Lawyers). Notice the use of the female pronoun. Rhode argues that the effects of looks-based discrimination are distributed unequally across genders because "women face greater pressure than men to be attractive and greater penalties for falling short." Women are expected to spend more money on their appearance. Minorities also suffer disproportionately as white images of beauty dominate the cultural repertoire. A quick look at the 2006 9th Circuit case Jespersen v. Harrah's Operating Company reveals that it is legal for employers to require women to "wear makeup, stockings, and colored nail polish" and "wear their hair teased curled or styled" so long as "equal burdens" were placed on men. In this case, the court found it equally burdensome to require male employees to stay away from wearing makeup or nail polish and to keep their hair and fingernails trimmed. The cost differential in time and money should be clear to any reader.
Rhode argues that despite the obstacles, legal remedy is an obvious place to begin countering this form of discrimination. She remarks that while many think that this sort of discrimination is ubiquitous and there is nothing to be done, the same types of remarks were made about racial discrimination before the passage of strong civil rights laws. In New York City, the Commission for Human Rights sometimes opens its presentations on the protected classes by joking that the rich and the pretty will always be treated better, and there's nothing to be done about it. But in San Francisco, where the protected classes prohibit discrimination based on physical features such as height, it seems like discrimination based on visual cues is starting to creep onto the radar.
Yan Cao is a member of Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP,) an organization based at Stanford Law School. BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.