The squeeze on middle-aged women: a new pattern to lookism?

With battles won over sex and race discrimination in the past, and more recently over disability and sexual preference, it may be that lookism becomes the next frontier in the battle against employment discrimination. Studies on both sides of the Atlantic have revealed both a beauty premium and a beauty penalty. Workers perceived to be better looking are more likely to be hired, to turn in better workplace performances, receive better pay and have better career prospects. Conversely those workers perceived to be average or worse looking receive less pay, are regarded as poorer performers, have more stunted careers and are more likely to lose their jobs.

Over the past few months, British media types have been convulsed in a debate about lookism. It started when a columnist in the Daily Mail newspaper, Quentin Letts, commented derogatively on the looks of a 60 year old female government minister. She was, Letts admitted, good looking for her age but because of the glop that she slapped onto her face at night.

There’s nothing new about derogatory comments made by men about women or about the media discriminating female and male politicians on the basis of their looks. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is constantly being pilloried for the way that she looks and talks, and Hilary Clinton’s dress sense has been the focus of snippy media discussion in the US. There’s also nothing new in politicians being stung by and responding to these comments. Margaret Thatcher had speech coaching as has, it is alleged, the current UK Chancellor George Osborne, and of course Ronald Reagan dyed his hair – as did German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

What is new, as another columnist has pointed out, is the new pattern of this discrimination and how it further disadvantages women. Writing in the Independent newspaper, Mary Ann Sieghart’s argument boils down to this: in an increasingly aesthetically-sensitive society, young professional women and men are both judged on their looks. Women, slightly later than they did in the past, then go off to have and look after their families, with their careers taking a back seat. In the past men’s careers developed in the meantime so that, in their 50s, these men assumed the top jobs, becoming senior management, CEOs, Presidents and Prime Ministers for example. Now younger men in their 40s are increasingly being appointed or elected to these positions. By the time that older women re-enter the labour market they find themselves already bypassed for the top jobs and having to compete with what is perceived as faded looks.

If Sieghart is right, professional middle-aged women now have a double disadvantage as the labour market changes for top jobs: having to compete with younger and also better looking men. Moreover when they do return to the workplace, not only are they more likely to be marginalised, their chances of being pushed out of work altogether are also now greater. Whilst the current economic downturn has impacted all workers, official data shows that the group of workers most hit by redundancy in the UK are middle-aged women. As the beauty penalty indicates, those workers perceived to be average or worse looking are more likely to be fired.  Over the last two years in the UK, unemployment amongst the over-16s generally has risen 5%. For women aged 50-64 years, the rise has been 39%. More middle-aged women are now out of work in the UK than at any time since records began. Over the same period and for men of the same age, unemployment has actually fallen by 1%. Thus it is not just middle-income earners but also middle-aged women that are feeling the squeeze in the economic downturn.

The debate about lookism has two sides. On one side are writers such as Virginia Postrell. In her New York Times best-seller listed The Substance of Style she argues that such discrimination is legitimate and even helpful to workers as it sorts them into more ‘appropriate’ jobs. One the other side there are scholars such as Deborah Rhode who in her recent The Beauty Bias outlines why she believes that, whilst lookism is not the top gender bias to be tackled, it is a major challenge that requires a legal and political response.

If society is becoming more aesthetically-geared and looks are more important in work, then the time is coming for debate and a decision about whether lookism is legitimate. In Australia, the state of Victoria has already outlawed it and there is discussion in other Australian states about whether or not equal opportunities laws need to be amended, as they have in Victoria.

In the meantime middle-aged women are being levered out of work and, if they manage to hang onto their jobs, they are losing out to a generation of younger bucks. Of course, Sieghart’s argument needs to be empirically explored. We need to know first if the labour market for top jobs is changing; second, if so, just how important looks are in accessing these jobs; and third, are evaluations of these looks weighted by gender and age so that women are disadvantaged. At the very least new research questions are emerging that need to be answered.

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