Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Ugly" as a protected class?

Gremlin Researchers, including lawyers and economists, have begun examining ugliness, suggesting that the subject has been marginalized in history and that discrimination against the unattractive is a silent, widespread injustice.  Researchers have tried to measure appearance discrimination or "uglyism" and "looksism," and the impact of what they call the "beauty premium" and the "plainness penalty" on income.  "Beauty and the Labor Market," a study published in the American Economic Review in 1994, estimated that unattractive men and women earn five to ten percent less than those considered attractive or beautiful, and that less attractive women marry men with less money.  Another study conducted by Tanya Rosenblat, an associate professor of economics, said "people who are physically attractive might develop better communication skills because the tendency is that from an early age they get more attention from all their caregivers, including their own mothers onward.  The conclusion: discrimination based on looks occurs across occupations.

Currently, few laws prohibit employment discrimination based on lack of attractiveness, although some cities, have passed ordinances banning discrimination based on looks including San Francisco and Santa Cruz.  Correctly observed, legal actions on behalf of the unattractive can be complicated for at least the following reasons:

1.  Most people in general would want to disclaim membership. It is not likely that "members" will admit "I am an ugly person and let's have a meeting of all ugly people."  Being ugly is unlike being of a particular race or religion.

2.  There is no agreement on what makes someone ugly.  As "beauty is in the eye of the beholder, " the same is true with "ugliness."  So defining ugliness is difficult as is defining beauty. 

These complications, however, have little effect on the persistent research into differential treatment on the basis of looks.  Steadily playing off of insecurities and implications, Dr. Synnott states: "Beautiful people are considered to be more intelligent, sexier, and more trustworthy.  And this implies that ugly people are assumed to be less trustworthy and less intelligent."

One study that looked into the earning power of law students graduating from the same law school during the 70s and 80s determined that five years after graduation, males who ranked one notch above average (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being best looking) earned about 10% more than fellow students who ranked one notch below average. Fifteen years after graduation, the premium for good looks grew to 12%.  The study found that the pay differential was consistent for lawyers working in both the private and public sectors. 

This might explain why I have never been able to negotiate a higher salary as a lawyer.


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The issue of discrimnation against the ugly is reminiscent of the short story by Garrison Keillor entitled "Shy Rights, Why Not Pretty Soon" in which the narrator advocates for protections against discrimination for shy people. One need not be a Jungian, however, to recognize that shyness can be measured through psychometric testing while beauty/ugliness is only skin deep.

Posted by: Bill Herbert | Dec 18, 2008 8:02:18 AM

The first problem might be overstated. I think a potential plaintiff would have no problem claiming membership in the class if he/she has continually watched the employer advance other people who are generally considered to be more attractive, even though they are less qualified. The second problem may be somewhat alleviated by recent studies finding objective, measurable traits that correlate with a person's subjective interpretations of whether another person is "attractive." For example, a recent study found attractiveness to be closely connected to the degree of symmetry in the facial features. Thus, a potential plaintiff might be able to use objective traits to demonstrate his/her unattractiveness. But it seems to me that defining the boundaries of the protected class would be difficult. To qualify as "ugly" or as "unattractive" would you need to fall within the bottom 10% of attractiveness, bottom 50%, or perhaps bottom 95%? I think some would argue that the problem lies more with the highly preferential treatment of the extremely attractive than with the mistreatment of the unattractive.

Posted by: Jason Bent | Dec 18, 2008 8:02:44 AM

What's the old saw: "Beauty is only skin deep, while ugly goes right down to the bone"?

Actually, this post is interestingly juxtaposed with your next one.

Posted by: James Young | Dec 22, 2008 7:58:29 AM

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