Thursday, 28 June 2018

On Looks, Height and Higher Wages


When watching the Cathy Newman interview with Jordan Peterson a while back, I recall a moment when it looked as though he was going to suggest to her that if she was much less attractive she probably wouldn't be sitting there on television interviewing him. He did, of course, stop well short of saying that, and it may be that I'm misinterpreting on his behalf. But I do recall a point in the interview when it came across my mind: whether Cathy Newman has ever consciously considered that the job she is doing is itself quite narrowly selected for in terms of physical appearance.

This is all based on well known correlations between positive characteristics, like beauty and height, and higher earnings. Last time I checked, attractive women earn on average about 5% more than less attractive women, and attractive men earn on average about 10% more than less attractive men (it may have changed slightly since then). This indicates that the less-attractive men are penalised more in the labour market than less-attractive women. When it comes to weight though, heavier women are penalised with lower wages whereas men not much so.

But what is the causality here: Do people earn more because they are more attractive, or is it positive qualities associated with attractiveness that make them more likely to be in higher paid jobs? It's just a hunch, but I feel fairly certain that in the vast majority of cases it is not the good looks that are making people do well in the labour market - it is much more likely to be the things associated with good looks that play the vital role in this success. 
 
For an analogous example, I remember reading in a social science journal about 10 years ago that while height is advantageous in the labour market, the people upon whom this advantage is conferred are not the tall in general, but more often those tall adults who were also tall in high school. People who were not that tall in high school, but who went on to be tall in adulthood, did less well on average than those who were also tall all the way through high school.  
 
Similarly, just as being a tall high school pupil engenders confidence and status, I think it is likely that on average more attractive workers are more likely to be healthier, more confident, have a wider social circle, be less insecure and be more outgoing. And if this was the case since their school years, it would be unsurprising that this plays out with higher wages later on, as better looking people have more confidence in looking for promotions and higher self esteem when it comes to demanding more pay.

I've also noticed that good looks appear to be more of a priority for employers in businesses where good looks matter more - especially in the service industry. For fairly obvious reasons, consumers are more likely to care about a good looking barmaid or shop assistant or waiter than they are a good looking bus driver or cleaner or financial adviser. Similarly, if all those positive qualities associated with attractiveness help in the labour market, then you would expect to see, on average, better looking people earning more across the board.

But by equal measure, with these determiners, you should also expect to see outliers, where many less attractive people are out-earning their competitors by having positive qualities associated with being the physical underdog - like tenacity, perseverance, diligence, and other efforts that rely less on natural qualities and more on hard work.

I must admit, though, I'm still stumped as to why less attractive men suffer more in the labour market than less attractive women, given the looks are purported to be a more important aspect of womanhood than they are manhood. And I can't find any studies that shed any light on this.

The only thing I can think might be driving this is not that being less attractive is any more important for males than for females, but perhaps that work is, in general, a more important factor in male status-mongering - and therefore more women that are disadvantaged by looks have opted out of the labour market altogether, skewing the statistics.
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