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Beauty and the Worker - Part 11

Dressing better does raise perceived beauty, but only slightly; but perhaps those who dress better also earn more, so that some of the effect on earnings that we have attributed to differences in beauty stems instead from differences in dress. In several studies, earnings have also been adjusted for differences in dress (for examples, whether a man in a photograph was wearing a coat and tie, whether a woman was wearing a blouse). Having a photograph depicting oneself dressed more formally is associated with higher earnings. But, because the relationship between beauty and dress is quite weak, this additional adjustment hardly changes the inferences about the size of the impact of beauty on earnings. The beauty effect does not arise from any correlation of beauty and being better dressed.

WHY ARE BEAUTY EFFECTS SMALLER AMONG WOMEN?

The careful reader will note that the estimated effects on earnings are larger for male workers than for female workers. This is true in the American data, and it is also generally true in studies for other countries. How can this be? Don't the beauty ratings summarized in suggest that people make finer distinctions about women's looks than about men's? After being presented with the results of some early studies in 1993, a leading observer of the role of beauty commented, “Women face greater discrimination when it comes to looks,” essentially dismissing the facts that confronted her but that contradicted her preconceptions. Albert Einstein's comment, “It is easier to split an atom than a preconception,” is relevant in studying beauty too.

For a variety of reasons, some of which I discuss in later chapters in various contexts, this dismissal, and these general beliefs, may be right, even though the inference that the earnings penalty for bad looks among women is larger than among men is also correct. To see why, ask what we would observe if both genders faced the same penalty on their earnings, say 10 percent for being below-average, and the same premium for having above-average looks, say 5 percent. Assume too that all adults were working for pay. What if there were also no differences by gender in the underlying distributions of beauty ratings (even though we know the ratings of women are more dispersed)? Then it would be the case that careful measurements of the effects of beauty on earnings would show that they are the same for women and men.

This point sounds reasonable, but it is wrong, because the assumption that all adults work is incorrect: Even in 2008, after a long rise in the fraction of adult women at work or looking for work (in the labor force), only 72 percent of American women ages 25–54 were in the labor force, compared to 86 percent of American men in that age group.

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