February 14, 2013 | Contribution by
CLAUDIA SEPULVEDA By Claudia Sepulveda, Lead Economist, Office of the Chief Economist, the World Bank It's tough enough finding a job these days without worrying about whether you're sufficiently beautiful — or at least better looking than the other applicants. But new research in this area, presented at the November 2012 Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association (LACEA) — Latin American Meeting of the Econometric Society (LAMES) in Peru, suggests that beauty does pay and it pays well.
A girl looking at a round mirror. Photo credit: Oleg Prikhodko
The growing interest in this area is motivated by a deep concern about job discrimination against certain groups and initiatives being weighed by several European countries to implement compulsory anonymous resumes that forbid candidates from including information (such as photographs, name, age, gender, or nationality) that could trigger discrimination hiring practices. Work on labor discrimination Ever since the seminal contribution made by Gary Becker in "The Economics of Discrimination" (1957), the economics profession has generated a lot of empirical research on discrimination in the labor market. Most of this research has focused on how ascriptive characteristics like gender, race, ethnicity, and religion affect outcomes like earnings, employability, hours worked, and occupations. But since 1994, with the pioneering work by Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle, research on discrimination against the ugly (favoritism for the beautiful) has started to thrive. However, the task to measure accurately the impact of these ascriptive characteristics is complicated by the need to account for unobservable productivity enhancing characteristics. For example, with survey data, researchers usually measure discrimination by comparing the labor market performance of women and men who report a similar set of skills. But these comparisons can be quite misleading. As a consequence, differences in outcomes can be attributed to these unobserved factors and not to discrimination. Several approaches have been tried to circumvent this problem. One approach, though not commonly done, is to use pseudo — experiments — which Goldin and Rouse (2000) did when they used the change in the audition procedures to orchestras to test sex-biased hiring. A second approach is the use of audit studies. That is, sending probes (resumes, individual testers) to random samples of decision makers to infer how they react to agents who maybe otherwise identical except for the ascriptive characteristics. Measuring Argentina's beauty premium A recent study by Martin Rossi, Florencia López Bóo, and Sergio Urzúa, tries to take this type of research to a new level by combining objective measures of attractiveness and an experimental design to analyze the link between beauty and the labor market. The objective measures that they’ve constructed rely on the "golden ratio" of the distance between the eyes and the mouth. It says that facial attractiveness is optimized when the vertical distance between the eyes and the mouth is about 36 percent of its length, and the horizontal distance between the eyes is about 46 percent of the face's width (see Pallet, Link, and Lee, 2010). The experimental design is a randomized controlled study, which is considered a highly rigorous way of determining whether a cause-effect relationship exists. How was the study conducted? The authors sent electronically fictitious resumes with photographs of attractive and unattractive faces of women and men between the ages of 20 and 30 to real job openings in Buenos Aires. The applicants' names and surnames were obtained from a list of the most common names and surnames in Argentina. Schooling and addresses were randomly assigned to the resumes. Photographs were constructed using pictures of real people that were transformed into fictitious ones by randomly altering pairs of real pictures to reflect the golden ratio or deviate from it. Between April 21 and June 20, 2010, about 60 fictitious resumes per day were submitted, reaching a total of 2,540 applications.
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So does beauty pay off in Argentina? As Martin Rossi tells us, they find that attractive people receive 36 percent more callbacks than unattractive people — with males and females equally affected. Moreover, given previous experimental research indicating that beauty isn't correlated with labor productivity, the study concludes that there is indeed evidence of labor discrimination against the less attractive. With that in mind, the authors suggest that attractive candidates should attach a photograph to their resumes if they can, whereas unattractive candidates should not. But with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, etc., not quite sure how this will play out.