The Ugly Truth

If you could receive a pay raise worth hundreds of thousands of dollars by declaring yourself “ugly,” would you do it?

Some people would. Maybe they should; that is, maybe their looks really are costing them job opportunities, promotions, sales, trials, or a better deal on their mortgage (see this New York Times op-ed to read more). Studies over the past twenty years demonstrate that the attractively challenged have a valid argument.

Daniel S. Hamermesh is a professor of economics at the University of Texas, Austin and author of Beauty Pays. He suggests this form of prejudice deserves compensation like any other “disability.” But why is monetary compensation our reaction to hearing this information? We’re told that “ugly” people are being disadvantaged solely due to their lack of attractiveness, and our response is to say “we’re sorry, how much can we pay you to make up for it?”

We seem to have very little faith in ourselves. We’re better than this. Monetary compensation shows that we don’t think this behavior can be changed. And by behavior, I mean that of the prejudicial perpetrators of “ugly” bias—which, according to these studies, is everyone (whether we realize it or not). Compensating attraction bias would normalize the behavior that we should rather be attempting to do away with. The focus should be on acknowledging and confronting this bias, rather than ignoring it or accepting it by trying to pay it off. The Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Ruth Grant communicates the sometimes negative effects of incentives in her upcoming book Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives.

The strategy of compensating for bad behavior happens more often than not. Rather than fix the system, we go the easy route and try alleviating the symptoms of the systemic flaw.  Over the summer, I worked at a nonprofit that deals with gender bias and sexual assault. What I learned is that we tend to put all of our attention on the victim: how did they end up in this situation? But what we should really be focusing on is the root of sexual violence itself. Only when we address gender norms and their implications will we begin to see significant and sustaining change.

While bias in the workplace may seem trivial when compared to rape, similarities can be found when we look at how we approach these two issues. We need to stop excusing the behavior by attempting to lighten the burden of the victim, and instead work on addressing why these prejudices (physical appearance and sexism, respectively) exist in the first place. I refuse to dismiss the behavior by accepting that our biological make-up is inherently prejudiced. We are not animals. That would be no different than blaming the rape victim for showing too much cleavage and then claiming she was asking for it because men simply “can’t help themselves.” As humans, our behavior is not purely instinctual.

There’s no easy answer to combatting this prejudice, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Let’s set the bar higher, and start asking more of ourselves as a society.