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Workplace Sexual Discrimination on Long Island

As Sherry Alfano—and countless others—know, attractiveness in the workplace is a double-edged sword

The unwanted attention was nothing new, Alfano explains.

“I’ve always gotten compliments about my looks,” she says. “The animosity, I get from female partners, and male partners try to come onto me.”

Alfano says a rotating cast of rich, married men came to Starbucks and took the polite compliment a step further: One male customer said she looked like a movie star and wanted her phone number; another licked his lips and asked her to go home with him.


“It started in Merrick with a lot of customers always commenting [about] me and asking me what my background is,” she says. “If I wanted to, I could have had maybe 20 sugar daddies.”

Yet just as Alfano’s physical appearance attracted unwanted attention from customers, her looks may have helped her land employment in the first place, analyses suggest.

Numerous published studies have found that individuals favor attractive people over unattractive people in criteria such as perceived job qualifications, hiring recommendations, predicted job success and compensation levels. The conclusion: Attractive people fare better than their less attractive coworkers in many occupational outcomes. They may have an easier time finding employment, doing well in their positions, and earning more money than those with less eye-pleasing physiques.

This “beauty is better” concept dates back to the famous study “What is Beautiful is Good,” originally published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1972.

“Not only are physically attractive persons assumed to possess more socially desirable personalities than those of lesser attractiveness,” the authors concluded, “but it is presumed that their lives will be happier and more successful.”

Sherry Alfano, who claims she was the victim of sexual harrassment, battery and assault, while working at a Great Neck Starbucks. Her manager allegedly told her she was to blame for being “too sexy.”

Lucy M. Watkins and Lucy Johnston, from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, published a modern experiment inspired, in part, by this beauty bias theory 30 years later. Their study, “Screening Job Applicants: The Impact of Physical Attractiveness and Application Quality,” investigated the impact of an individual’s attractiveness on employment.

“[In] most instances physical attractiveness is unrelated to job performance and hence any bias toward physically attractive job applicants represents discrimination,” they write.

Watkins and Johnston’s experiment tested just how much a pretty picture can bias a job applicant’s rating—and a bias is exactly what they found. Their results indicated that an attractive, average-quality applicant was evaluated more positively than an average-quality applicant whose résumé lacked a photograph. Namely, the study concludes, that individuals’ physical attractiveness can boost their attractiveness as job applicants.

In July of this year, Newsweek, too, discovered this. Surveying 202 corporate hiring managers and 964 laymen, the national news organization came to the conclusion that looks do indeed matter. According to its results, 57 percent of managers responded that unattractive, but qualified, job candidates will have a harder time getting hired and 68 percent believe that appearance will influence managers’ employee performance ratings post-hiring. The public confirmed these sentiments, with 63 percent and 72 percent saying that physical attractiveness is beneficial for job-hunting men and women, respectively.

“We’ve long known that attractive people get ahead—there are studies showing that better looking people make more money, even that babies stare longer at attractive faces,” Jessica Bennett from Newsweek, author of “The Beauty Advantage,” tells the Press. “But as our culture is increasingly consumed by looks, what we’re finding is that perhaps beauty matters more today than it once did—and in the current job market, where employers have more choice than ever, looking good can be a real asset. That’s not to say that experience and smarts don’t matter, but the sad truth is that sometimes it’s the superficial things that will get you in the door.”


In an endeavor to put the beauty bias hypothesis to a local test, the Press ran its own experiment. Using the materials from Watkins and Johnston’s experiment, and attractive and unattractive female photographs courtesy of Brian Meier, from Gettysburg College, co-author of “Downright Sexy: Verticality, Implicit Power, and Perceived Physical Attractiveness,” the Press replicated the two women’s experiment in a more local setting: at 11 businesses in Nassau County, in the towns of Glen Head, Port Washington, Syosset, Williston Park, Manhasset, Glen Cove, Greenvale and Roslyn.

Forty-eight business professionals participated, simulating the hiring process by voluntarily acting as recruiting officers. Participants first read a job advertisement, and then one version of a résumé, of either high or average quality. Each résumé had a yearbook photo of either an attractive or an unattractive woman (or, in some cases, no photograph at all). Participants judged how qualified the candidate was for the position, how likely they would be to offer the candidate an interview, and the starting salary they would offer the individual.

The results: High-quality resumes with the attractive female’s photograph were rated significantly higher than high-quality resumes with the unattractive female’s photograph. There was also a trend that high-quality resumes without a photograph were rated higher than high-quality resumes with the unattractive female photograph.

As it turns out, merit is not immune to the effects of beauty.

In addition, high-quality resumes with the attractive female photograph were much more likely to get an interview than high-quality resumes with the unattractive female candidate. And, for both the high-quality and average-quality resumes, an applicant without an attached photograph was awarded a significantly higher starting salary than an applicant with the unattractive female photograph.

Additionally, for both the high-quality and average-quality resumes, an applicant without an attached photograph was awarded a significantly higher starting salary than an applicant with the unattractive female photograph.

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