Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Letter from Europe: Here's Looking at You

In some cases when one of my colleagues feeds me a good FSP topic or anecdote, I am quite comfortable writing about it myself. Recently a colleague told me about an incident that I thought would be best told by the original source. So, today there is a guest writer for FSP:


I am a European Science Professor. Recently I was asked to write letters of recommendation for two aspiring FSPs (FSP1 and FSP2) who both applied to the same tenure-track position at a European university. I know both women well because I have collaborated with both on various research projects. FSP1 just came back from an “informal” seminar she gave at the university, in preparation for the formal interviews that will seal their fate. FSP2 had also visited “informally” a few weeks before.

FSP1 said to me that she felt very good about her visit because there is an excellent academic fit between her field of expertise and where the institution wants to go. Something worried her though. She was told that FSP2, who is also an excellent young scientist, had the preference of a fraction of the (male) faculty because of her looks. FSP1 has never met FSP2 in person and asked me, somewhat nervously, what I think of FSP2’s stunning looks. I am not used to taking these criteria into consideration, and the overall story gave me pause. It is bad enough for these men to make comments on FSP2’s appearance and use this in a hiring decision, but it is quite incredible to tell FSP1 about it.

This is an extreme situation perhaps, although I don’t think it is isolated in our male-dominated fields, but it made me wonder, beyond the fact that the men at this institution are pigs, what is the effect of looks in the hiring process. Here in Europe it is common, and often required, for candidates to include a picture ID in their application file. It is also common, as I did a while ago on a search committee, to hear comments made on the physical appearance of women applicants.

So, here is a simple survey:

Statement: Men are more likely to be hired if they are good-looking
Yes, they are more likely to be hired
No, it doesn't matter for men
Free polls from Pollhost.com

Statement: Women are more likely to be hired if they are good-looking
Yes, they are more likely to be hired
No, it doesn't matter for women
Free polls from Pollhost.com


Anonymous said...

In my experience at Generic Western State U (GWSU) and then Big Name U (BNU), women professors who receive tenure are always petite, skinny, fashionable, and above average looking, in addition to being absolutely fantastic scientists. The MSPs seem to possess a larger range of looks (ugly to hot), wear unpolished loafers, and be on the ends of weight extremes (too fat or thin) without losing their bids for tenure. Sometimes I wonder if women know that they have to fit some sort of "look" to get hired and then tenure at most universities, and this leads to self-selection of the intelligent and beautiful for tenure-track positions.

However, this is my brief survey of US FSPs. This observation could be a factor of the sample size (5 FSPs out of at least 50 SPs total between GWSU and BNU). Which, of course, goes back to another problem... small percentage of FSPs

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, the pictures.

I've been on too many search committees, I'm afraid.

Yes, the men *always* make comments on what the women look like, so I have taken, in my cynical style, to making comments on the men. "Gee, he looks hot, let's invite him!" I get nasty comments from the guys, but they don't see that this is somehow related to the comments *they* make. And I have tenure, so I can say what I like.

We had one guy submit a photo of himself in a bathing suit (!!) with a child on one arm (!) and a beachball on the other (!!!!). I tried hard to keep them from inviting this guy for in invitation, but he ended up on the short list. Maybe they liked it that he had a paunch, too?

When the people show up in person for the interviews, it is often disconcerting as the pictures do not actually look like them.

We just had a potential hire turned down because her voice was "too squeaky", although she is a great teacher and a good scientist.

Yes, they use all sorts of irrelevant criteria. That's why I keep being on these committees, to try and knock sense into my colleagues, one by one. My and Sisyphus ...

Anonymous said...

How long is it going to be before some fucking troglodytic asshole shows up to explain to us that this shit is only natural--the inevitable consequence of human genetics forged in the fires of evolution back in the caveman days--and if men didn't prefer to be around women that are teh hawt, the human race would TOTALLY DIE OFF!!1111!!!1111!11!11!!!!ELEVENTY!1111!!!

Anonymous said...

When I was doing the interview process to become a US FSP I actually thought that my looks and social skills were a detriment to my getting hired. I was told on more than one occasion that although I interviewed wonderfully, all the faculty liked me, the students loved me, my research ideas were interesting and fundable, I was envisioned to be a great teacher and a wonderful mentor to my future students that I would not be hired because I hadn't convinced a few members of the faculty that my research would bring in heaps of money and I wasn't quite as good at selling it as I should be. Which I understand to a point but so many aspects of being a great researcher/mentor are traits that one can't really learn. And, as going straight from PhD --> Post-doc --> interviewing selling your research isn't something you get heaps of training in. But it is something you can learn, especially in the presence of good mentors. And I think with a great personality and social skills your networking skills will be better.

I was actually told by one of the female faculty at a place I interviewed post-interview that she and her husband did not think the candidate they hired would be as good as I was in all other aspects except the fact that they sold their ideas better. But I guess research is first and foremost.

Back on topic though, I am currently at a EU BNU and although Europe is touted as being more gender equal, I call a huge flaming pile of BS. I'm not surprised at all that a professor would comment on another candidates attractiveness.

barbara said...

In my (personal and limited) experience, being too goodlooking works against aspiring FSP's. Many established (male) scientists will ignore their talks and discuss their looks, clothes and body features instead. Joint work with male coauthors will often generate bawdy gossip.

Some FSPs in my field are actually beautiful women, but most of them try to deemphasize this with their style choice (no makeup, practical clothing, wide for those with a feminine shape).

FSP1 should not fear - and if any department is really hiring on the base of looks, both FSP1 and FSP2 would be happier out of it.

Anonymous said...

I am almost speechless about this story. (At first I thought it was going to be some nuance of 'what do you do when you've been asked by two people to write a reference letter for the exact same job' so I did not see this angle coming.)

My own very limited experience (in the dept where I got my MS there were several FP's, but in the department where I did my PhD there were none, and I was the only one in my own department at this institution until just a few months ago - but I know other women FPs in other departments and disciplines) people take the less-stunning FPs more seriously, at least at the outset.

Anonymous said...

Several bloggers have talked about the tenure process and how the best way to get tenure is to, on top of having done good research and teaching, be liked by the tenured members of the department. Your post doesn't say if the "not-so-good-looking" one is considerably better than the other, but if not together with that I said above, I do not see a big problem. Why can't they have both brains and looks in their department?

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's as simple as a monotonic correlation between looks and success for women - there's a turnover at some point. In my experience, the most conventionally attractive women often don't get taken seriously as scientists. You know, as if looking good must mean they're ditzes.

Anonymous said...

I somewhat disagree. My academic career spans 3 BNU, one of them in Canada. In my experience, FSP that are attractive are disadvantaged by their looks. I have gone to the extremes of wearing wide frame glasses and absolutely no makeup, jewelry and very plain clothing that mostly consist of a pair of black slacks and turtle neck…but I am still considered too nice and cute to even be a professor. I did noticed that when a health problem contributed to me gaining weight the reaction I received from colleagues that knew me was very critical (to the point of commenting on my need to exercise more and loose some weight), peers that did not know me in person who would meet me showed me a higher level of attention, and the students called me Professor or Dr more often than Miss. Now that my weight is back to normal, the treatment is back to normal as well, and I have to grin and bare the ‘Miss’…
On the other hand my female colleague who is a larger statue woman and has very distinct eastern European features and a wonderful accent seems to fit the professor stereo type quite well; I believe the accent always helps.

Tom said...

I saw a news broadcast months ago about how good looking individuals, of both genders, are more apt to get hired if all other factors are "considered equal". Though, I'm aghast at the brazenness of the situation that FSP1 has experienced here.

After years of working my butt off to get where I am, I'm not about to rely on the looks I may have, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If my wife were doing the hiring, I'd think I'd have a leg up on the competition (I hope!), but we're talking about total strangers.

Almost 24 months ago, I started the application tours from universities to institutions ... anywhere I could get my foot in the door to interview. I tried to make it a point, if it were possible, to get an extra day (preferably prior to my seminar) to allow me to sit with each of the researchers, tour the facility, see the city in the evening. My rationale was simply "If this is going to be a long term marriage, we should get to really know each other, right? Hard to do in one day, better to do it over two or three days if schedules allow."

By going in early, I was afforded the time to understand the positions of each individual I spoke with. Come seminar day, and the eventual peppering with questions, I was able to use that knowledge to frame responses that were applicable to them. To me, that connection proved invaluable. Of the 3 jobs I interviewed for, I was offered all 3. I doubt any of it had to do with looks, but rather with the fact that I took time to meet with them, understand their work ... and show them that by hiring me, I could help them too. I know this to be the case because my coworkers today, when I speak to them about my job candidacy will comment about how I was able to tie in my research (which is a far cry from what everyone else does here) with theirs ... and no other candidate did that.

It's a pity if the final decision in this case boils down to looks.

Anonymous said...

Grrr! I may have to forward this to the next person who can't understand why I'm not thrilled with their fantastic idea to post pictures of all students, postdocs, and faculty on the department web page. (The issue has come up at least once at each of my past three institutions.)

Amir said...

I voted yes to both. It's well documented that more attractive people (regardless of gender) tend to be paid more.

From CNN:

"Good-looking, slim, tall people tend to make more money than their plain-Jane counterparts, according to a study released this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, with researchers finding that beautiful people tend to earn 5 percent more an hour than their less comely colleagues."

I do, however, think that it is MUCH more overt for women. It's still socially acceptable to discuss a woman's appearance in ways that would never happen for a man.

"Economists also found that women considered obese in terms of their body mass index (BMI) in both 1981 and 1988 earned 17 percent less than women within their recommended BMI range."

It happens in every field. A study called "What to wear today? Effect of doctor's attire on the trust and confidence of patients" found that "The importance of physician's appearance was ranked similarly between male and female respondents (P=.54); however, female physicians' dress appeared to be significantly more important to respondents than male physicians' dress (P <.001)."

There was a reaction piece to the study in the NYT that focused almost exclusively on women doctors' appearance.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe, in light of all the recent studies done on correlating height and salary, and good looks and promotion, that more people don't think that looks matter for men! Of course they do. It's just more open and may matter more for women.

It should be a practice that we all try to avoid though.

Anonymous said...

Why do European universities require a photo to accompany the application? I've also seen European CVs which include various personal biographical information. I can't see any legitimate reason why that information is necessary to evaluate a job applicant.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I have a slightly different take on this. Why is the European Science Professor writing a reference letter for two people for the same job? Apparently both are equally outstanding candidates in every way that matters, right? Wrong?

Appearance is a ridiculous criterion and I share the outrage expressed here. But could it possibly have become an issue because one reference writer spoke glowingly of two people for the same position? Probably best for both candidates to avoid the position. It would not be a good work environment for either.

The last time I saw one reference writer recommend two people, I was thinking, okay, so how am I to judge now. Luckily they were in two different areas and one of the areas seemed like a better match. I wonder if this whole situation could have been avoided.

Just a thought and with apologies for going against the grain here.

Anonymous said...

I think that being at either end of the distribution of attractiveness is a disadvantage, but much more so for women than for men. I suspect that weight is particularly damaging for women, whereas height has more influence when people are judging men.

As to writing both recommendations, I am currently on a hiring committee that has received two letters from the same person, and we found it very helpful. Both candidates are highly qualified and each would be a good choice, depending on the direction the department wants to go. The writer explicitly compared them in the letters, citing relative strengths and weaknesses, while not definitively endorsing one over the other. This is an approach that was very helpful to the committee. I see no reason a letter writer should try to make the committee's decision for them by refusing to write one of the letters.

Anonymous said...

Science Cog -- I have no problems writing two letters for the same position. My students are unique individuals, and I do a careful job in explaining their individual strengths. Once an applicant reaches a certain caliber, the decision of who to hire frequently becomes one of "fit" (i.e., who best matches the intellectual direction of the department), and thus my goal as a letter writer is to give the hiring committee enough information to judge that fit. Nothing in the process requires that I make a preselection about the "better" candidate.

Anonymous said...

As some comments have pointed out, there are data about the effects of appearance on all sorts of judgments, including differential effects for men and women. For example, Heilman & Stopeck (1985) compared how participants explained the success of a hypothetical corporate executive, where the executive was either male or female, and either attractive or less attractive (all other information was kept fixed across conditions). They found (as some have already speculated) that looks helped men but hurt women. In particular, attractive women were less likely to be judged competent and their success was more likely to be attributed to luck. I don't remember the details, but I include the reference below. I suspect many of the same biases play a role in academia, and we also see differential treatment of men's and women's appearance in the media's treatment of Clinton.

Heilman & Stopeck (1985). Attractiveness and corporate success: Different causal attributions for males and females. Journal of applied Psychology. 70: 379-88.

Anonymous said...

Actually, there have been numerous studies on how looks affect performance evaluation (in the US) and better-looking people are consistently evaluated slightly better for equivalent work. They're also more likely to be hired or promoted, even in jobs such as telemarketing where appearance can have no impact on job performance.

(Sorry if this was a repeat.)

Anonymous said...

I read once that the number one killer of job prospects was bad teeth. Since then, I've looked around me and haven't seen one visible example of tooth decay or dental problem in a single person in business or academia. Take a walk around a poor neighborhood or farm town sometime. It's shocking the universal difference in "beauty" between these places and the mainstream business/academia world. People have rough, weathered skin. They are missing teeth. Their eyes have cataracts, they limp a little. Most of them are as intelligent as you'll find anywhere, and a large number even have college degrees. Yet, here they are working for minimum wage on a farm somewhere.

The discrimination between two (very likely both good-looking) women in academia pales in comparison with the universal 100% discrimination against people whose teeth or skin aren't up to standards.

That said, discrimination is reprehensible wherever it arises and I hope European universities start getting the message soon.

Wanna Be Mother said...

This was definitely a jaw-dropping post!
All the comments seem to just reiterate that, yes, prejudice based on looks exists, which I'm sure we all realized. The shocking thing to me is that they are actively participating in this, totally aware that they are judging her based on her looks AND pointing out to FSP1 that she is lacking on that and may not get the job due to it. I'm willing to bet the same thing wouldn't happen for two excellent male candidates. If anyone has experienced this, please correct me.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I was quite surprised that the polls only had two choices. Here at LargeU I've seen just the opposite: the pretty female candidates (and grad students, for that matter) are viewed as not as qualified as those not so blessed in the looks department.

chall said...

Funny enough, I just had a conversation with an old PhDfriend of mine who is currently writing applications for an nonEuropean (non Scandinavian) university. She got a response when sending out a letter for "critique" by a spouse in the country in question. She was ripped apart by the differences in, for example, "not tell anything about your personal life (as we are more use to - like "what I spend my free time doing") and the fact that they did not care about her physical form at all.

In some aspects I have wondered how good it is to fit a photo tpo your application - as I have done in my CV in my native country - and how much it does make prejudice against people. My name is very Scandinavian, not to mention the fact that in the rest of the world I am percived to be male based on it, and I have often wondered about the 'rule' not to write "female" in the CV.

Regarding this issue though, I am more appalled that the Male People arouy in the place" told the _other_ female who applied that the first one was better looking. Seriously? How pathetic.

THen again, I think the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" work very well when hireing women. A too good looking woman, with special attribute as blond curly hair and good looking body will probably not be convincing as "good at her scientific job"... or so I have heard from the hiring processe Ihave been involved in. Both men and women (!) are keen to comment on women physique whereas men can get around lots of things. Being obese though, never think it is good....

Needless to say, I am cynical about the general hireing process. good post though. Neede dto talk about the "reality" of what 'selling our research' really means?!?!

Unknown said...

I haven't read the other comments yet, but actually, I might think that a woman who looks more like a man is more likely to get hired... At least I have the feeling when there are interviews involving female candidates at our (European) institute, people are more likely to think that a fashionably dressed attractive woman is not serious about her science and won't be taken seriously.

Anonymous said...

Agree that looks matter for both, but more for women, but being too good-looking can backfire (I tell myself). I actually like the website photos, though, even though I'm not photogenic. But maybe not on the CV. Some engineering journals publish photos at the end of papers, too, not sure why.
My big dilemma when interviewing in my 2nd trimester was whether to dress like I'm 'showing' - was it better to be pregnant (and potentially not thought serious) or be perceived as overweight? I honestly think overweight (which I chose out of privacy) is a bigger detriment...

Anonymous said...

There was actually an article about this very topic in the New York Times probably about 6 months ago... there is bias toward hiring a good looking person, regardless of the gender of that person... if I recall correctly.

Ms.PhD said...


I voted that for both men and women, better looks tend to help.

However. I have observed that men who Look Like Professors tend to get jobs (they look like someone smart and trustworthy, but not intimidating, like Tim Russert on Meet the Press).

A recent example from my current lab: of three postdocs who applied for jobs last year, the woman followed her husband and wouldn't have gotten a job otherwise (not for lack of being pretty or talented and accomplished); the balding but fashionable guy went to Europe; the guy who looks most like one of the PIs here (he's like a miniature version both physically and fashion-wise) got the most coveted position of the three.

The few women I see hired are also of the non-threatening variety. Which means they are pretty but not fashionable. In fact the prettiest ones seem to compensate by dressing like men as much as possible. The ones that can manage being fashionable seem to get away with it because they are older or not conventionally pretty at all.

But I have seen very few female hires so it's hard to say much about it.

And you wonder why I'm so cynical about the job market.

I've experienced all kinds of sexism from my advisors so I have every reason to expect more of it. Two harassed me by commenting regularly on my looks. I had by that point already learned to dress conservatively, but then they would comment on my clothes being too boring or on things like how I should wear my hair, what would be prettier, etc.

More recently I have had the exact experience that a couple of your commenters describe, that despite my effort to appear as professional as possible, my physical appearance seems to work against me. It's very clear that I'm not taken as seriously as I would be otherwise (the criticism is exactly what one anonymous commenter mentioned regarding "not selling it" as well as I should.)

Another point not mentioned here is height. I won't hunt for the reference but there were a few studies showing that taller people are viewed as smarter, more trustworthy, more responsible, more respectable, more professional.

I'll probably blog about these other issues on my site so as not to take up any more space here.

Very interesting discussion. Not very cheery, but always nice to know it's not just my imagination.

Peggy K said...

My impression from my grad school days (so it might be totally off) was that attractiveness was positive, but looking like you spent time working on your appearance - what I would call the "trappings of femininity", like obvious make-up or frilly or trendy clothing - was negative. Is there a perhaps a difference between the US and Europe in how stereotypically feminine a female scientist is expected to appear?