Dr Catherine Hakim from the London School of Economics, caused quite a stir recently when she presented a new theory of Erotic Capital in the European Sociological Review.
According to Hakim, who is an outspoken critic of feminist theory, the six elements of erotic capital: beauty, sexual attractiveness, social skills, liveliness, presentation, and sexuality, have become just as important as educational qualifications and good old-fashioned hard work, in the labour market.
Whilst both sexes have it, Hakim says women are much better placed to exploit their erotic capital than men in the sexualised culture of affluent western societies¹. However, research out of the United States suggests that rather than being an advantage for women, erotic capital can actually count against you when applying for more senior roles or “masculine” jobs.
In a study published in the Journal of Social Psychology, Stefanie Johnson, assistant professor of management at University of Colorado Denver Business School and her colleagues, found that beauty does have a downside, at least for women.
The study, co-authored by Robert Dipboye, professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, Kenneth Podratz, an organizational development manager at UPS and Ellie Gibbons, research assistant at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, found that attractive women were discriminated against when applying for jobs considered “masculine” and for which appearance was not seen as important to the job. Such positions included titles like manager of research and development, director of finance, mechanical engineer and construction supervisor.
“In these professions being attractive was highly detrimental to women,” Johnson said. “In every other kind of job, attractive women were preferred. This wasn’t the case with men which shows that there is still a double standard when it comes to gender.”
“In two studies, we found that attractiveness is beneficial for men and women applying for most jobs, in terms of ratings of employment suitability. However, attractiveness was more beneficial for women applying for feminine sex-typed jobs than masculine sex-typed jobs.”
So can we conclude then that erotic capital becomes most important when applying for the “girly” jobs in an organisation and if so, at what point in her career would a woman be wise to tone it down?
According to Hakim, erotic capital can best be utilised working in the private sector where the beautiful people can expect to earn 10% – 15% more than their average looking colleagues². But does it really make sense for any organisation to put beauty before brains?
If Hakim is right and the private sector are actually making hiring decisions based on erotic capital rather than merit, then maybe instead of just accepting it and learning how to ‘sex it up’ at work, we’d be wise to level the playing field between the haves and have nots.
Linda Curtis, designer and development manager at NNT uniforms, the company that supplies uniforms to Queensland Health, Qantas, Jetstar and all the major Australian banks, says that attractive work attire can have an impact on perception and performance in the workplace. But a professional wardrobe can also level the playing field between those who have erotic capital and those who do not.
“More and more women are becoming very successful and this has nothing to do with the way they look and I think that’s why being in a uniform or having corporate attire that is supplied to you, makes it easier to have that level playing field,” she said.
In a recent survey of working Australians conducted by NNT, 95% agreed that what they wear to work impacts on the business image and results, and 72% said that if they look good, they are more positive at work.
“We like to call it a ‘wardrobe’ rather than a uniform. A corporate wardrobe is less competitive and for some people it gives them the opportunity to wear high quality clothing they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford,” said Curtis.
“Our business is about the image of the actual organisation. But we give staff a selection of different trousers and tops to choose from which fit in with the image of the business and we also can give the person the opportunity to individualise their wardrobe.”
1. Catherine Hakim: She’s counting up erotic capital, accessed at timesonline.co.uk, 23 August 2010.
2. Forget talent or hard work, erotic capital is the key to success, accessed at www.guardian.co.uk, 23 August 2010.