Attractive businesswomen trusted less, surveys suggest

"For women there are certain contexts in which they don't seem to benefit from their beauty," researcher Leah Sheppard.

By Brooks Hays
Attractive businesswomen trusted less, surveys suggest
Men and women find attractive businesswomen less trustworthy and less truthful than less attractive female colleagues, according to a new study. Photo by Wikipedia Commons/

March 25 (UPI) -- Like many professional fields, women remain underrepresented in business -- and women that are in business deal with a variety of challenging biases.

According to a new study, attractive businesswomen face extra challenges.


Previous research efforts have suggested attractive women are perceived as too feminine for traditionally masculine roles, but new surveys showed the biases facing attractive businesswomen are more complex.

In the eyes of both men and women, attractive female businesswomen are seen as less trustworthy and less truthful -- a phenomenon researchers dubbed the "femme fatale effect." Surveys also revealed men and women find attractive businesswomen more deserving of being fired than less attractive female colleagues.

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"Highly attractive women can be perceived as dangerous and that matters when we are assessing things like how much we trust them and whether we believe that what they are saying is truthful," Leah Sheppard, an assistant professor of management at Washington State University, said in a news release.


Previous studies have shown attractiveness to offer a variety of benefits. The latest research -- published in the journal Sex Roles -- complicates the notion.

"There's two dueling stereotypes here," Sheppard said. "You have the 'what is beautiful is good' stereotype, meaning that in general attractive people should fare better across their lifespan. We can say that that's generally true."

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"It becomes more nuanced when we look at gender," Sheppard said. "For women there are certain contexts in which they don't seem to benefit from their beauty."

The goddess Circe and her sirens -- infamous for seducing Homer's Odysseus and keeping him from his wife for more than a year -- were the original femme fatales. The stereotype has persisted for millennia.

Sheppard and Stefanie Johnson, an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado, began their research by selecting "professional women" images using Google search results. The two researchers had participants on Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing platform, rate the attractiveness of each businesswoman.

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During a series of surveys, Sheppard and Johnson had participants rate the truthfulness of women and men delivering the news of company layoffs. Regardless of their professional background, the most attractive women were deemed less trustworthy. Whether the fictional females bearing bad news were announcing layoffs at a tech startup or a hospital, survey participants found attractive female employees less truthful.


In another study, researchers presented participants with similar fictional layoff scenarios, but first, Sheppard and Johnson had participants think about a time when they were in a committed relationship and were confident that their romantic partner entirely faithful.

The goal of the exercise was to prime the participants' "sexual security." The primed participants found less attractive and more attractive females equally believable.

For the final test, researchers primed some participants to feel sexually secure and others to feel sexually insecure, and then asked them to consider whether or not a female employee deserved to be fired. Sexually primed participants were less likely to call for the firing of the employee regardless of the female's level of attractiveness. Sexually insecure participants were more likely to call for the attractive female to be let go.

Sheppard and Johnson suggest evolutionary pressures underly the femme fatale effect. Females may instinctively see attractive females as competition for mates, while men may be concerned an attractive female would be unfaithful.

Study authors claim the negative effects of stereotypes can be blunted by speaking more openly about stereotypes and gendered expectations, but research suggests most people prefer to avoid the subject.

"They're going to be challenged in terms of building trust," Sheppard said. "That's not to say that they can't do it. It's just that trust is probably going to form a bit more slowly."


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