Good looks bring a handsome return

Last updated 12:20 08/01/2013
Stephen Zamykal
LUCKY: Stephen Zamykal has never felt discriminated against because of his looks and says they may have helped.

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Good looks matter for men - far more than previously believed.

The first Australian study of the financial return for physical attractiveness finds it is worth an astounding A$32,150 ($40,347) in annual salary, with men of above-average looks typically commanding A$81,750 compared with A$49,600 for men with below-average looks.

The authors, Melbourne University economist Jeff Borland and a former Australian National University economist, Andrew Leigh, find the "plainness penalty" more important than the "beauty premium".

Men whose looks are rated as below average by door-to-door interviewers typically earn 26 per cent less than average. Men whose looks are rated as above average earn 22 per cent more. For women, the effect is smaller and harder to measure.

"I found something similar when I looked at the effect of politicians' appearance on their electability," said Leigh, who is now a Labor MP.

"Good looks helped male candidates more than they helped women. It could be that attractive women come up against the stereotype that they can't be both attractive and intelligent. There's no such thing as the dumb-blond syndrome for men."

Property and mortgage expert Stephen Zamykal agrees.

A partner in five successful businesses, including National Property Buyers and a Mortgage Choice franchise, Zamykal said he had never felt discriminated against because of his looks and it was possible they had helped.

"It's hard to know," said the 1.93 metre former AFL footballer who played for Essendon and North Melbourne in the 1990s. "I don't know if I am even good looking ... I know some people say I'm lucky to be tall, as height gives you presence."

The researchers were asked to rate the appearance of interviewees on a six-point scale from "very much more attractive than average" to "well below average". Leigh separately asked the interviewers to rate photos and found widespread agreement.

"It turns out beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder," he said. "There is a strong literature showing views about beauty are shared.''

Men with below-average looks were 15 per cent less likely than normal to be employed and were typically employed for a 9 per cent lower wage. They were also less likely to be married and less likely to be married to a woman of high income.

The findings about men remained constant in two surveys of 2000 individuals - an ANU survey in 1984 and one constructed by Leigh and Borland to replicate the ANU survey in 2009.

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But the findings for women changed, with looks now more important than in the past when it came to securing a job and getting married.

"It's probably that the labour market for women is a whole lot different than a quarter of a century ago," said Leigh. "Nothing much has changed for men but with many more women being employed there's more opportunity for 'lookism' to matter. I am not confident enough to speak about why looks are mattering more for women in the marriage market."

A University of Texas economist, Daniel Hamermesh, has raised the possibility of subjecting poor looks to anti-discrimination legislation, in the same way as is done for race.

But Leigh said: ''You would run into all sorts of definitional problems and it would water down the importance of existing categories of discrimination. Not every piece of research needs to have policy implications.''

- Sydney Morning Herald

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