There’s a scene in the 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada” where Anne Hathaway’s character, Andrea Sachs, gets a makeover that literally makes her better at her job.
A trip to the fashion closet and the beauty department at Runway, the film’s thinly veiled stand-in for Vogue magazine, transforms Andy from an ugly-duckling failure of a second assistant to the beautiful, capable confidante of the magazine’s formidable editor, Miranda Priestly.
The scene is a pivotal moment in the plot — looking good is part of the job at a fashion magazine, after all — but it also nicely illustrates the real-life fact that when women in any profession spend more time on their appearances, it actually does cause people to take them more seriously.
That’s according to a new study from sociologists Jacyln Wong at the University of Chicago and Andrew Penner at the University of California, Irvine, who found that attractiveness is a key factor in how well young professionals between the ages of 24 and 32 do at work.
Wong and Penner’s work, which will appear in the June issue of the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, found that attractiveness helps both men and women at work — but not in the same ways.
While a man can realize some professional benefits from being naturally attractive, for a woman it depends almost entirely on how much effort she puts into makeup, grooming and other efforts to look good.
Research shows that attractive people have an easier time getting hired, get better performance reviews, are promoted more often and make more money than their less attractive counterparts. What Wong and Penner found is that being considered attractive enough to command a wage premium at work doesn’t necessarily require perfect bone structure.
Job status is often affected by the amount of time a person spends getting ready in the morning. And this is especially true for women.
“Although appearance and grooming have become increasingly important to men, beauty work continues to be more salient for women because of cultural double standards with very strict prescriptions for women,” the paper says.
For women, the premium they make for looking good at work is almost entirely explained by how well-groomed they are. For men, it has a little to do with grooming and a little to do with being naturally good-looking.
“This really highlights how much work that women have to do to be considered attractive,” Wong told The Huffington Post on Thursday.
This plays out in real life, too. Just last week, my colleague Emily Peck wrote about women who feel that high heels give them a leg up at the office. The experience of Meya Laraqui, whom Emily spoke to for her story, mirrors the findings of this paper. Laraqui was finding it hard to get promoted. She put a little more effort into her wardrobe and began to wear high heels every day. Not long after, she got a promotion. (She also got accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, though it’s doubtful the admissions people could tell whether she was wearing heels by reading her application.)
On the one hand, it’s incredibly depressing that women are expected to put effort into their physical appearance if they want to get ahead at work. That requires its own investment in what is likely to be an expensive wardrobe and an array of face and hair products. On the other hand, the premium that a woman commands for looking good at work is entirely within her control, unlike the premium that naturally attractive men command.
For women, attractiveness is about performance, Prenner told HuffPost. “The economic returns aren’t being given to people who have a certain kind of body, but rather to people who present their bodies in a certain kind of way,” he said. “Attractiveness is not something that you have, but something that you do.”
But that’s not necessarily good news for women. In fact, it has troubling implications that go even beyond the workplace. For the most part, Wong said, “these findings suggest that we care a lot more about monitoring women’s behavior than we care about monitoring men’s behavior.”
So I guess it’s time for me to go reapply my mascara.