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A retired head teacher of one of Britain’s most go-getting girls’ schools has stirred up a hornets’ nest by suggesting that beauty is a winning weapon in the boardroom. Clarissa Farr, high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School until 2017, suggested that good looks can give female bosses an authority they might otherwise be considered to lack.

“When you Google the word CEO, the images are all white men with grey hair,” Farr remarked. “Our idea of authority is still male. There are certain women whose personal beauty makes their leadership acceptable who wouldn’t be able to hold the sway they do if they didn’t look the way they do.” By way of example, she cited Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and British financier Helena Morrissey.

Farr was lamenting rather than celebrating this circumstance, adding: “Unfortunately, beauty is part of successful leadership for women in a way it shouldn’t be. We need more ... normal-looking female leaders such as Angela Merkel ... who are judged by their words and actions.”

Annabel Denham, head of the Female Founders Forum, a group of leading female entrepreneurs, sprang to the defence of Farr’s exemplars. “It does a disservice to inspirational women like Sandberg and Morrissey to suggest they have advanced in business on account of their looks, rather than their intelligence, diligence, aptitude, and myriad other talents,” she said.

The only solid finding is that both men and women are less likely to hire an exceptionally attractive person of the same sex because they do not welcome the competition.

- Dr Catherine Hakim, sociologist

Meanwhile, Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, declared: “By talking about the appearance of women CEOs, we put discriminatory attention on their appearance.”

From the Bronze Age’s Helen of Troy to the Instagram Age’s Kim Kardashian, beauty has always been controversial. Even in fairy tales, it proves double-edged. It might win you the hand of the handsome prince, yet also spells trouble: confinement to a cindery hearth, say, or the jealousy of a ruler who seeks to cut your heart out. In former ages, attractiveness was as much an opportunity as it was a threat: a route to social ennoblement, perhaps, but no less a means of attracting more dangerous forms of attention; its end point the pedestal or the pit.

Has anything changed? Certainly, in 20 years of journalism, I have never encountered a topic that has felt more taboo. To a Briton, there is no more unspeakable subject. Wolf may insist we do not talk about beauty — on this side of the pond, it appears we actually can’t.

The venom the beautiful attract is savage. Long before L’Oreal adopted the mantra “Because I’m worth it”, its catchphrase was: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”. Witness the infamous spat between actresses Helena Bonham Carter and Kathy Burke back in the Nineties, when Bonham Carter observed: “If you’re not pretty and you’re working-class, you have an easier time in terms of people’s attitudes to you.” Cue Burke’s response: “As a lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes, I would like to say to Helena Bonham Carter (wholly pledged member of the very pretty upper-middle classes): shut up, you stupid c--.”

A stumbling block

Compare screenwriter Nora Ephron’s observation “If there is anything more boring to me than the problems of big-busted women, it is the problems of beautiful women”, implying that they are negligible. Certainly, when it comes to office politics, studies have traditionally indicated that the pretty — male and female — are beneficiaries of a halo effect, whereby they tend to be hired sooner, get promoted more rapidly and earn more than less comely colleagues, regardless of IQ.

But recent research suggests that far from being an asset in the boardroom, pulchritude may in fact present a stumbling block for women. Earlier this year, the feminist journal Sex Roles published a report entitled The Femme Fatale Effect by American management professors Leah Sheppard and Stefanie Johnson.

The study found that being a good-looking woman in business can prove an obstacle in terms of winning trust, perceived honesty, and one’s likelihood of getting the sack (not to mention any less-than-scrupulous bosses trying to get one in the sack).

190820 boardroom curse
Image Credit: Jose Luis Barros/©Gulf News

No evidence was found of this being the case for men. According to Sheppard and Johnson, this prejudice is rooted in sexual insecurity and evolutionary biology, whereby female colleagues will consider beautiful women a threat, while male ones will be suspicious that their physical attributes mean they are likely to be duplicitous.

Critics dismissed the findings. Sociologist Dr Catherine Hakim, author of Honey Money: Why Attractiveness is the Key to Success, and coiner of the term “erotic capital,” told me: “It is only in Puritan, Anglo-Saxon cultures that people reach to find disbenefits for attractiveness, because Puritan cultures have always been sour and suspicious about beauty, luxury and wealth — the frivolities.

“Overall, the only solid finding is that both men and women are less likely to hire an exceptionally attractive person of the same sex because they do not welcome the competition.”

Still, the article’s conclusions brought back uncomfortable memories of Silicon Valley CEO Eileen Carey, who revealed in 2017 that she had darkened her formerly golden hair and traded her contact lenses for glasses in order to be taken seriously at work (a backlash ensued, with trolls informing Carey that she was both “ugly” and “delusional” — see, who’d admit to thinking they were anything more than average-looking?).

Moreover, the findings corresponded with writer and former JP Morgan wealth manager Michelle Miller’s “power of seven” hypothesis: that being too much of a looker will prove professionally impeding.

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According to Miller, the facilitating level of loveliness is “seven out of 10”. In our present warped system, Miller maintains that a woman should “be attractive enough to be noticed, but not so attractive that her accomplishments are undermined ... Think back to your consulting/banking/law firm analyst class ... the hot blonde everyone wants... She got bumped to a role where her power over men and threat to women have been successfully contained.”

It will not have escaped your notice that no one is fretting about strategic levels of masculine allure. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk may have been satirised for raising their style game, however, their beauty — or otherwise — passes without comment, as does that of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Successful men don’t have to be handsome; they don’t have to be ugly. They can just be. They can even wear the same rumpled grey T-shirt every day, without anyone taking notice.

The feminist revolution will only have done its job when women can be similarly free to succeed without being forced into some sort of beauty contest; the Helens lined up on one side, the plain Janes on the other.

The only way to ensure that women are “judged by their words and actions” is to actually judge them by their words and actions — not tar them with the beauty brush.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019

Hannah Betts is a feature writer and columnist across a range of subjects for several British publications