Attractive businesswomen are considered less trustworthy, less truthful and more deserving of being fired than men and less attractive women. That's according to a new study from researchers who have dubbed the persistent sexist phenomenon as the “femme fatale effect.”
The research shows that both men and women judge attractive women differently from less attractive women because of feelings of sexual insecurity, jealousy and fear. The effect has been shown by the academic research to have persisted despite decades of feminism and more awareness of the damaging consequences of gender stereotyping.
“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 from the WSU Carson College of Business, who was the lead author of the paper, said in a release published by the Eurekalert science news website.
Sheppard and Stefanie Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Colorado, reached their conclusion with six tests. Before the tests began, they sourced pictures of businesswomen with a Google image search for “professional woman” and then used online crowdsourcing software to have participants rate the attractiveness of each woman.
Using those ratings, they asked participants in their experiment to rate the truthfulness of women and men in fictional news accounts of them announcing layoffs for a variety of reasons. The attractive women were consistently considered less truthful than both the men and the women who were rated via the crowdsourcing to be less attractive.
In the next study, researchers used the power of suggestion to put participants into emotional states to cloud their judgements before they repeated the truthfulness tests. They asked participants to think about a time when they felt secure in a relationship, and found that those who were led to feel sexually secure ended up thinking that attractive women were equally truthful as the women rated to be less attractive.
The last study asked if participants thought the woman should be fired in various scenarios. Before being asked for their opinions, some participants were led to feel sexually secure, but others to feel sexually insecure. They found that the participants who felt secure judged all the women to be equally truthful. However, those made to feel insecure viewed the attractive women as less truthful and more deserving of being laid off.
Sheppard believes that both evolutionary and social issues are to blame for the sexist stereotyping. She said that some of its negative effects could be fought if if people were more conscious of the stereotypes they use, but said that people are often unwilling to accept their own prejudices.
The researcher went on to say that attractive women are inevitably going to encounter prejudice in the workplace and that they should be aware of the problems that they might face as they go through their careers.
“They're going to be challenged in terms of building trust,” said Sheppard. “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.”