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Beauty and the Labor Market
Since ancient times, man and woman alike value beauty in the same level as they value their possessions and even their family. This is easily seen in works of art, in works of poetry and other forms of literature that praise beauty. Balladeers have sung its ability to intoxicate more potent than wine and its capacity influence man and his many endeavors.
The subject of beauty is very important in human history because the human race is given to marriage and it is the reproduction of children that allows the said specie to continually dominate the earth. It is therefore not surprising how much money and effort is given to the pursuit of beauty and the celebration of the same.
In the late 20th century, two men, Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle were also stricken by the allure of beauty but pursued it from a unique angle. These two researchers proposed the idea that if discrimination – with regards to race, nationality, etc. – exists in the workplace then there is surely discrimination when it comes to an employees good looks or the lack thereof.
Both men went further as to say that good looks not only allowed men and women possessing of this enviable quality to get good jobs but they also are able to increase their income more successfully than those whom Hamermesh and Biddle described as homely in appearance. But before proceeding to find evidence or contradictions that will shoot down their thesis, Hamermesh and Biddle went on a lengthy discussion strengthening their position that there is indeed a way to do an empirical study of the said subject matter.
Hamermesh and Biddle were right on target when they remarked in the beginning of the paper that there is no going forward without having established the fact that beauty can be measured. The first thing that they did was to look for related literature that would support their claim that beauty can be measured statistically.
They went further as to say that not only does beauty a trait that can be measured scientifically but more importantly, perception or standards of beauty is something that does not abruptly change or shift easily in a short period of time. In other words a generation or two of Europeans, Americans, and Canadians will have the same standard of beauty at least in the 20th century when the study was made.
Then Hamermesh and Biddle scrutinized the methodology used in the multiple tests to determine a “beauty standard” and they were satisfied with what they learned. In fact, in Part II of their study they made the following discovery:
Within a culture at a point in time there is tremendous agreement on standards of beauty,
and these standards change quite slowly. For example, respondents ranging in age from seven to fifty who were asked to rank the appearance of people depicted in photographs showed very high correlation in their rankings (see Background portion of study).
Now, in order to make their study reliable and the results credible Hamermesh and Biddle made their case airtight by looking closely at their respondents and the other variables that would affect their results significantly. An example of this is the exclusion of those who have questionable health status for this would surely affect their performance and would have made the study unreliable to say the least.
But both men did not stop there they also presented other factors that would have made their analysis unacceptable. They pointed to the fact that there can be other forces involved in the hiring of employees possessing above-average good looks. And these are namely: 1) there are industries that require good looking people and 2) in the case of overcrowding a manager may use the criteria of good looks to choose among the many applicants competing for limited jobs.
The world of business is surely indebted to Hamermesh and Biddle and those who wanted to offer something new to the growing body of knowledge concerning what would increase the productivity of a particular enterprise. In the beginning of this study the two proponents were correct in saying that in the area of discrimination in the workplace there is very little if at all, a systematic analysis on the effect of a person’s looks on the quality of job that he or she will get and subsequently the degree of success that will be achieved in his or her lifetime.
This study is also helpful in providing more data to those seeking to resolve issues concerning an employers alleged discriminatory actions with regards to an employee unable to rise atop the corporate ladder due to the misfortune of being born with a rather homely appearance. This study would form the foundation of future inquiries as to the role of beauty in the corporate world.
The study was a great challenge for the two researchers because they decided to tackle something as difficult as trying to catch the wind with bare hands. They aimed for the impossible – to measure beauty and ugliness. If this is not enough their study was made more complicated by putting another hurdle and it is to understand the correlation between beauty – or the lack thereof – and productivity in the workplace.
It does not need further discussion to conclude that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that what is attractive to one culture may be offensive to another. In fact a mere two hundred year gap in history is enough to totally transform standards of beauty. The researchers admitted early on when they cited that paintings made in the 17th century depicted a rather different standard when it comes to what feature makes a beautiful man or woman when being compared to what is celebrated today in the media and the arts.
But they pulled off a rather convincing argument using a highly controlled study where people from all ages – 7 years old to fifty years old – where able to demonstrate that indeed for a given generation there is a standard of beauty that does not change even after the passage of time. Here is the beginning of their problem.
They said so themselves that in the time of the famous artist Rubens beauty is measured by the plumpness of the lady and not by the reed thin supermodels that are highly esteemed in modern times. So how can they be certain that their standard does not change after thirty years or more? Moreover, they have concluded that either Canadians have a slight difference in their outlook regarding beautiful people or that they are not comfortable in being brutally frank when it comes to judging another person’s appearance. This shows subjectivity arising from differences in culture etc.
Now, for the sake of argument, this paper will allow that Hamermesh and Biddle were both correct in their analysis that there is indeed a standard of beauty that is both measurable and unchanging. Then this will lead the discussion to another perceived weakness in their work which is the fact that they conducted their study within European culture and there is no data to support the fact that they considered the preference of Asians.
Another possible weakness in their methodology is the fact that they were not able to clearly establish the standard of beauty in a way that their study could be replicated in the future and in different regions of the world. What occurred was that in order for their results to be accepted as scientific then they would have to assemble a similar group of respondents every time they would try to replicate their study in other locations outside the U.S. or Canada.
Another problematic aspect of the study is the fact that a person uses more than beauty to complete a job. Mental capabilities and social skills play a major role in the development of a person’s career. The study is not that complex to separate intelligence quotient and beauty. There is no way to just simply observe beauty in action apart from the use of mental faculties.
Throughout the course of the research the duo were struggling in putting together a very convincing argument that indeed beauty alone is the major factor in achieving success. There are just too many variables involved in the process of doing a job whatever it may be. In the end Hamermesh and Biddle were almost back to square one for they were not able to come up with anything that is radically new except for reinforcing the already known idea that there are some jobs that require attractive people in order to be more productive.
Hamermesh and Biddle tried an escape route by saying that they do not have to demonstrate the validity of their claim because according to them people spend a lot of time and money in grooming aids and purchase of good clothes in order to enhance their physical beauty. But it can be argued that grooming and beauty are two different things. A celebrity which many considers beautiful can wear a plain shirt and still people would find her attractive.
Hamermesh and Biddle were both correct in their final analysis that there is a need to study, “…relationships between looks and earning within particular narrowly – defined occupations” (see Part VIII). Moreover there is a need to extend the timeline of their study to determine if attractive employees were able to sustain a high level of success and that their increase in income is not merely a result of a quick promotion because the manager was biased to people with good looks but soon regretted his actions when he found out about their performance.
Hamermesh, D. & Biddle, J. Beauty and the LabourMarket. American Economic Review 84.5