Women are used to being judged by their appearances. In fact, that goes a long way to explain why we spend so much money on clothes, cosmetics, haircuts and gym memberships. In fact, research by virtual coupon service Groupon found that the average British woman forks out more than £70,000 on her appearance during the course of her lifetime.
So what does it say about current attitudes toward women in business that female directors are not judged on their facial appearance when they stand for election as company directors – and yet men are?
According to research conducted by Professor Philipp Geiler and his colleagues from Emlyon Business School in France, a man’s appearance can have a significant impact on the likelihood of him being elected to a company director position. Perhaps surprisingly, though, he doesn’t necessarily have to be good-looking to attract votes.
The research team reviewed 621 company director elections and re-elections for a number of UK businesses between 1996 and 2007.
The researchers calculated an appearance score for corporate director candidates based on rankings from anonymous raters. These raters were asked to give candidates a score of between one and five for their beauty, perceived competence, intelligence, likability and trustworthiness, after seeing only a photograph of them. The researchers then matched these average ratings with the percentage of voters who either abstained or voted against directors in their elections and re-elections.
The study revealed that while beauty had no impact on voting patterns, the perceived competence, intelligence, likability and trustworthiness inferred by a corporate director’s facial appearance had a direct effect on the decision of voters. Directors who ranked highly for these perceived character traits received more votes in their favor.
If the candidate was male, that is.
Female candidates’ beauty, or other perceived character traits, had absolutely no effect on the number of votes that they received.
Geiler’s assessment of the study, the findings of which were published in the Journal of International Financial Markets, Institutions & Money, is that it offers a “different opinion to what was already generally thought – that facial beauty has an effect in company director elections.”
He highlights that it’s “the perceived characteristics of a male corporate director that have an influence on the likelihood of them being voted for and are therefore important traits for a male corporate director to have”.
But why don’t any of these factors appear to have an influence on the elections of female corporate directors? The answer to this question seems to lie in the fact that voters are pleased to see a woman – any woman – in the frame for a director role. “Women receive very little voting dissent at all, which is likely due to top female directors still being in short supply, and companies and shareholders recognizing the benefits of gender diversity at board level,” explains Geiler.
It seems ironic that women, who are used to being judged by their appearances in so many aspects of their lives – including in their careers – escape this scrutiny once they reach the upper echelons of the business world. Arguably it’s a little surprising as well since female politicians don’t seem to get the same benefit from the rarity factor – you only have look at the amount of attention that gets paid to Hillary Clinton’s hair styles to see that. In many ways, it’s a good thing that female company directors are not judged on their looks, of course. The situation is unlikely to stay that way, however, once we have a greater number of women on boards and voters are in a position where they have to select between them. Inevitably they will start to make judgments based on appearances.
What would be really interesting now would be to see some research that correlates election results with performance – did the male directors who got the most votes based on their perceived characteristics live up to expectations in practice? That would give us some real insight into how good humans really are at judging a book by its cover. Perhaps it might also make the case for having “blind elections”, where voters don’t get easy access to the faces of directors before they cast their vote. Hard to imagine attempting that in the digital age, however.
By Sally Percy
A 2023 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that cultures where “follow your passion” is common career advice have greater gender disparities in academia and the workplace because women are more inclined to choose roles that align with traditionally feminine characteristics and interests.
Psychological safety at work? Depends on who you are and the environment your employer creates. Data from The Courage Collective suggests that on average, whereas 87% of White men feel safe voicing dissenting opinions at work, only 67% of Black women feel the same.
Most people believe in promoting DEI in the workplace. But implicit and unconscious biases — not to mention the constant juggling of priorities required at work — can lead to inequitable decision-making. In this article, drawing on recent research, the authors suggest that this problem can be addressed by making DEI more immediately obvious.