“For the labor market return, what matters is not your innate attractiveness but rather how you present yourself,” says study co-author Andrew Penner of working women. Thinkstock

Can a fresh haircut or a touch of lipstick help a woman earn more money in her career? According to a study by University of California, Irvine sociology alumna Jaclyn Wong and associate professor Andrew Penner, it can indeed.

Their findings that link a woman’s grooming habits – rather than innate beauty – with her income were recently published in Research in Social Stratification & Mobility. The study, originally written as part of Wong’s undergraduate honors thesis, was inspired by her fascination with gender inequality.

“I got really interested in the idea of physical attractiveness because I was going into the work with the assumption that attractiveness seems to matter more for women than it does for men,” Wong says. “It felt like a big part of social life that we weren’t talking enough about in an academic context.”

She and Penner used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent & Adult Health, a resource for social and behavioral scientists. It provided evidence of the long-known correlation between one’s attractiveness and earnings: More good-looking individuals reported higher salaries.
“We knew that the Add Health data set also included information about respondents’ grooming – their makeup, hair, clothing, etc.,” Wong says. “And we wondered: What is attractiveness and what is grooming?”

The answer to that is still a bit fuzzy, but what they did find was that grooming explained the entire effect of attractiveness on income for women. In other words, women who put more effort into grooming made more money, regardless of such physical attributes as nice skin or a symmetrical face. Men, on the other hand, while still rewarded for grooming, were also judged as attractive based on biological traits. The data suggest that women need to put in more work for the payoff.

“Once you account for grooming, for women, attractiveness doesn’t really matter anymore,” Penner says. “And that surprised me. Because typically when you think about attractiveness – much in the same way that people think about race or gender – the idea is sort of that you either have it or you don’t. You’re attractive or you’re not. But what we see is that for the labor market return, what matters is not your innate attractiveness but rather how you present yourself.”

Essentially, Wong says, the study revealed that women are compensated for adhering to widely accepted social norms. She finds this fascinating.

“It gives me another way to think of the mechanisms that are creating gender inequality in our society,” she says. “It’s something that constantly sits in the back of my mind as I do my other work: What’s different for women that might not matter for men? What are some of the pressures women face that men don’t?”

Penner believes the phenomenon they uncovered could be linked to an overarching societal desire to exert power over the female form.

“To my mind, it goes back to a larger set of issues around how we sort of seek to control women’s bodies,” he says. “There was, I think justifiably, some outcry in Britain recently regarding women being required to wear high heels at work. I hope this study makes us question practices like this. I hope from a policy perspective and also on an individual level that it helps us be aware of these biases that we have and where they may or may not be warranted.”

Ideally, both say, the findings will prompt people to reflect on the concept of physical beauty, what constitutes attractiveness, and why gender expectations differ.

Penner is mentoring a graduate student doing thesis research on the topic – specifically, which professions reward more well-groomed women and which pay more evenly across the board, as well as the characteristics of these jobs, i.e., whether they’re considered masculine or feminine.

Wong, who is working toward her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago, continues to study gender inequality in the labor market. Her current focus is dual-career couples and partner negotiations in relation to career moves.

“It’s really encouraging to me as a researcher that people find the things I’m doing important in the same way that I find them important,” she says. “Attractiveness seems to matter. So let’s figure out why and what exactly it is.”