BEAUTY AND THE MANAGERIAL BEAST Good looks seem to boost a male's career but may hinder a woman's. Plastic surgery, anyone?

(FORTUNE Magazine) – A few common misconceptions: Beauty is only skin deep. One's physical assets and liabilities don't count all that much in a managerial career. A woman should always try to look her best. Over the last 30 years, social scientists have conducted more than 1,000 studies of how we react to beautiful and not-so-beautiful people. The virtually unanimous conclusion: Looks do matter, more than most of us realize. The data suggest, for example, that physically attractive individuals are more likely to be treated well by their parents, admired by teachers, sought out as friends, and pursued romantically. With the possible exception of women seeking managerial jobs, they are also more likely to be hired, paid well, and promoted. Un-American, you say, un-meritocratic and downright unbelievable? Once again, the scientists have caught us mouthing pieties while acting just the contrary. Their typical experiment works something like this: They give each member of a group -- college students, perhaps, or teachers or corporate personnel managers -- a piece of paper recounting an individual's accomplishments. Attached to the paper is a photograph. While the papers all say exactly the same thing, the pictures are different. Some feature a strikingly attractive person, some an average-looking character, and some a singularly homely human being. Group members are asked to rate the individual on certain attributes, anything from personal warmth to the likelihood he or she will be promoted. Almost invariably, the better looking the person in the picture, the higher the person is rated. In a pioneering monograph on the subject, psychologists Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Walster summarized the results of one of their experiments: ''Physically attractive people . . . were perceived to be more likely to be sexually warm and responsive, sensitive, kind, interesting, strong, poised, modest, sociable, and outgoing than persons of lesser physical attractiveness. They were also seen more likely to be 'exciting dates,' to be 'nurturant' individuals, and to have 'better character than persons of lesser attractiveness.'' In the phrase, borrowed from Sappho, that the social scientists use to sum up the common perception, what is beautiful is good. The principle apparently applies in the workplace. Personnel managers, when put through one of these experiments, routinely favor the good-looking in making hypothetical decisions on hiring, initial pay, and overall potential to do the job. Attractiveness can also affect how your work is received. In one study, men were asked to judge an essay and its female author, photograph attached. When accompanied by a picture of an attractive woman, the essay was judged to be better overall -- more creative, with stronger ideas. Good- looking authors were rated more intelligent, sensitive, and talented than their homelier counterparts, who had, of course, written exactly the same essay. In business, however, good looks cut both ways for women, and deeper than for men. Utah State University professor Gerald R. Adams, an authority on the subject, explains: ''In terms of their careers, the impact of physical attractiveness on males is only modest. But its potential impact on females can be tremendous, making it easier, for example, for the more attractive to get jobs where they are in the public eye. On another note, though, there's enough literature now for us to conclude that attractive women who aspire to managerial positions don't fare as well as women who may be less attractive.'' The research of Madeline E. Heilman, a New York University professor, represents a key part of that scholarly literature. Rendered out of sociologese, the findings of her three studies can be summarized as follows: The more attractive a woman is, the more feminine she is thought to be. According to the stereotype current in our society, feminine means, among other things, weak, emotional, and passive. Managers, another stereotype tells us, are not supposed to be weak or emotional or passive. Q.E.D., in the common perception, beautiful women should not be managers. AS A FEW of the fair sex might be moved to reply, now wait just a damn minute. You're going to conclude that based on some bozo handing around photographs? In fact, the stereotypes just may be changing. Deborah Then, a Stanford Ph.D., disputes Heilman's findings. Then circulated the standard paper and photographs among Stanford MBA candidates and found that they seemed to harbor no prejudices against attractive women who aspire to managerial positions. They did favor men over women, however. Some flaws in the academic studies are obvious. In the first place, the people most often quizzed in these exercises are college students, a species not necessarily representative of society as a whole or of the denizens of the corporate world in particular. A professor raises at least one possible source of error in using students as the test population: ''Their hormones are really jumping when they look at those photographs.'' Academics describe the second, and potentially more serious, problem as the paper-people fallacy. In most experiments, group members are asked their impressions based on a single photograph and accompanying documentation. But what if you actually get to know a person -- talking to him, maybe working with him? Wouldn't that educate you about him way beyond whatever impression his looks initially made? The social scientists respond several ways. True, some say, we do need more studies that attempt to track the importance of physical attractiveness over time, through a relationship or a career. What few we have, however, tend to support the conclusions reached in studies that use photographs. The academics also cite the substantial body of research on the importance of first impressions. Thomas F. Cash, a professor at Old Dominion University, uses the example of a job interview: ''The interviewer will funnel information through his mind differently based on what the person he's interviewing looks like. Say there's a two-year gap in the person's work history. The interviewer asks about it, and is told, 'I took time off to travel around the world.' If the job applicant is unattractive, the interviewer is likely to think 'Gee, what kind of person would leave a job for something like that?' But if the applicant is attractive, the interviewer thinks 'Hmm, a risk taker -- we need more of those.' '' Perhaps the most intriguing hypothesis offered up by the social scientists: If, because you're good-looking, people treat you like a warm, strong, sensitive individual, you just may begin to act like a warm, strong, sensitive individual. Convinced? If so, your first step as a manager perhaps should be to reconsider just how good the work of your Adonis of a subordinate -- the one everybody calls ''the golden boy'' -- really is. Your next step may be to ask, ''How do I get a piece of this beautyism action for myself?'' You might well begin by asking the academics what their studies indicate to be the salient characteristics of face and figure. Surprise -- their answers are maddeningly vague, along the lines of ''People know good looks when they see them.'' According to Professor Adams, social scientists do know that the following features are crucial to a beautiful face, male or female: an oval shape, a narrow nose, relatively thin lips, and eyes set evenly apart. To get a clear mental picture of the look, he suggests recalling any number of classic portraits of Venus or the face of a Barbie doll. In men, height also appears to be significant. According to one study, the ideal height for men, at least in terms of attracting women, is from 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet 2 inches. You find your looks somewhat less than ideal? If you're really obsessed with the supposed problem, you will probably consider cosmetic surgery. Dr. John Goin, until recently the president of the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, observes: ''The popular press would have it that there has been a tremendous explosion in the number of men having plastic surgery, and that's not true. But there has been an increase, not only in the number of men, but in the number of business executives, in the last ten to 15 years.'' Other surgeons report that people are having the surgery done earlier in their lives -- at 40, say, rather than 50. FOR BUSINESSMEN, the most popular operation appears to be the blepharoplasty, which gets rid of droopy eyelids and those bags under the windows of your soul. (For the U.S population in general, the No. 1 type of cosmetic surgery is still breast augmentation, which says something about the U.S. population in general.) According to the doctors, execs come in complaining that they look dissipated, even when they have been on a health kick. An hour of relatively painless surgery, ten days for the bruises to heal, your wallet lightened by $3,500 or so, and bingo, you look like you have had a good night's sleep or perhaps a particularly restful vacation. You may ! not even need to sneak around about it. Says Dr. Robert Schwager, a Fifth Avenue plastic surgeon: ''There has been a change in attitude -- more and more people are willing to discuss their operations. It's the same thing that happened to psychiatry 20 years ago.'' Still, most of the social scientists, for all their fervor on the subject of beautyism, recommend a more conservative course: Make the best of what you got. They stress that grooming can make quite a difference in how you come across. Madeline Heilman, for example, suggests that striking women, by adopting a professional, businesslike look, may be able to tone down their drop-dead appeal to make themselves fit better with the managerial stereotype. That is, after all, what beauty seems to be about: conforming to somebody else's stereotype.