Just the other day, at a London event, I heard a well-known female columnist singing the praises of a recent program on the BBC. There had been three economists discussing the latest dismal news, she said, all women, and the moderator was female too. “And they were all so nice and polite and kept saying how much they admired the others’ work. Not like men would be at all.”
Well, maybe. Perhaps the producers just failed to find a good cross section of economic opinion that evening. Two weeks after that conversation I was at a symposium in Amsterdam. There were three economists on the platform, all male; and the moderator was male as well. And they were all very nice and very polite and they all kept praising each other’s work as well.
There is some much-publicized evidence that “women don’t ask” for a high starting salary, a raise, a promotion, in situations where men would. There is also well-publicized research suggesting that, in specially staged competitive environments, women are more likely than men to shy away from competition, and men to embrace it. There’s evidence that higher testosterone levels lead to greater risk-taking and, on real trading floors, are associated with greater success. And then there is a whole wealth of evidence showing that boys tend to be much more physically aggressive and openly competitive than girls in the way they play, and in their liking for teams, games and keeping score.
It is this sort of research that leads some people to argue that women will never break through glass ceilings without special help; and others to speculate that, if there had been more women involved in finance (“Lehman Sisters”), the banking crashes of 2008 would never have happened.
Yet overall, the evidence from psychology is—as so often—surprisingly mixed. Women don’t always hold back in mixed company; and even when the men are clearly competing harder, the absolute differences are not always as large as you might imagine from the headlines. As for “not asking,” being less aggressive at work, more risk-averse: yes, the evidence suggests there are male–female differences, and yes, they may be hardwired. But we also know that young men and women these days earn the same, like for like. So even if there are these differences, they don’t seem to be having any very serious effects.
On balance, young women today probably benefit from the sexual signals and sexual dynamics of the mixed workplace. And certainly all the successful young women I interviewed for this book were attractive too. That wasn’t my intention: my interviewees were friends of friends, colleagues of colleagues. But every single one was slim and groomed, with good hair, good skin and good clothes. I would also bet a lot of money that, if I’d been interviewing their male counterparts, I’d have found almost exactly the same thing: maybe a couple of exceptions, but no more than that.
Being good-looking, being slim and radiating good health are all sexually attractive. But the signaling involved goes well beyond the sexual, because the things to which men and women respond are not random sexually or otherwise. They have bedded down in our species because they are signs of a general “fitness.”
People with certain characteristics are likely to make good mates because they are more likely to be healthy, long-lived and successful. They seem likely not just to breed but also to keep the children alive and well. But as humans, our adult lives are about a lot more than reproduction and giving the impression that you are a good bet as a parent. In these other parts of our lives first impressions also matter. In order to do well, we need to convey to other people that we are competent, trustworthy, superior, someone they want to hire and have around. One of the ways we do it is through the characteristics associated with sexual attraction; things that other people respond to automatically, but for good reason.
That is why signaling is not just directly sexual, but general. It is an important part of why beauty pays, and good-looking lawyers earn more. And it is why appearances, and the responses they evoke, don’t fade into irrelevance once a professional woman hits her late thirties. As we can infer from a peacock’s tail.
Peacocks’ Tails and Costly Signaling
Upriver from London, the Thames boasts a succession of manicured riverside pubs. On sunny days, you can drink in the company of Thames Path walkers, owners of small boats, waterbirds, and, at my favorite, peacocks. The cocks stroll around among the drinkers and the peahens, displaying their extraordinary tails on a regular basis. They also fly up to the pub roof, to make their ugly calls. If you only ever saw the birds on the ground, you wouldn’t think such flying was possible; and in a world of fast-moving predators—wild cats, foxes—these tails seem crazy. Which is why they have fascinated evolutionary biologists from Darwin on.
Darwin deduced that, way back, peahens started to prefer mating with males who had large showy tails. This meant that the larger the tail, the more offspring a peacock was likely to have, and over time tails got bigger and bigger still. But why would dowdy, sensibly camouflaged peahens prefer this to a lean, mean fast-flying bird? “Costly signaling” is the answer.
Costly signaling is behavior that is very costly in terms of resources—time, energy, risk or, in humans, money—and also conveys information that has potentially big returns for the signaler. For example, a huge tail takes energy to grow and maintain, and handicaps and endangers its owner. But a peacock with a fine tail therefore proclaims that he is physically a fine, strong and fit specimen who can easily cope with all these demands. And is a desirable mate.
Among nonhuman species, signaling is all about mating and choosing a good parent for your offspring. Among humans it goes much further. We are also interested in choosing people for a much wider range of activities. However, the basic problem is the same. There is a lot about people that we don’t know and we are trying to evaluate their future potential as well as their current worth, as employees, employers, trustees, political leaders.
This is even harder in today’s large and complex human societies than it was in the small groups of our hunter-gatherer past. One reason why there is such intense competition to enter a select few of the world’s universities is the signal that their degree certificates send: not about “reproductive fitness”—that is, the likelihood you’ll produce top-quality offspring—but about your intelligence, application and general fitness for top jobs.
Certificates, however, only take you so far. A lot of human signaling remains face-to-face, whether it’s for elected office, the CEO’s suite or just the good graces of someone you want on your side at work. There, first impressions take in physical attributes, but also the way you dress and behave, and what these seem to say about your backstory…
Research on beauty confirms, time and again, that in the labor market, men benefit or suffer just as much as women: for example, as we saw earlier, male lawyers with good looks gain just as much as good-looking female ones. This seems puzzling at first, since women place much less weight on appearances than men do when choosing husbands: fecundity matters less to women, resources more. However, as we have just seen, signaling by humans goes well beyond specifically sexual encounters. We see physical characteristics as evidence of underlying quality; we like to be among the successful and able. And we definitely like to think that the people we hire are from the top half of the distribution.
Talking about “beauty” makes people think of facial features, but that is only part of it. Body weight and height also matter. Of course, there are individual exceptions; but tall men do significantly better in the labor market than shorter ones, after controlling for education, class, race and general health. And it is not just the very short who suffer a penalty; men in the whole bottom fifth for height are significantly affected. People associate height in men with strength, energy and resources, which is why short male politicians often wear stacked heels; and the labor market data indicate that our perceptions translate into concrete advantage.
Obesity, meanwhile, is bad for your earnings as well as your health, especially if you’re a woman. In laboratory studies, people claim they won’t discriminate against the obese, and then go ahead and do just that. Labor market data for the US and the UK confirm that obese women really suffer for their weight, even more than men do for their height.
This isn’t just because obesity is more common among the poor, although it is. The finding holds true even after controlling for education, family background and health. Obese white women earn a lot less on average than their otherwise-similar peers. I suspect this goes well beyond aesthetics and signals of fecundity. In modern societies, which value slimness and sport, an obese woman is “read” as someone who has little self-control or ability to stick at something difficult (like exercise or a diet). This is then generalized into their likely value as an employee.
All of this helps explain why, in 2010, “of the 16 female United States senators between ages fifty-six and seventy-four, not one has visible gray hair; nor do 90 percent of the women in the House of Representatives.”
Academic lawyer Deborah Rhode, who pointed this out in her attack on the “beauty bias,” finds it demeaning verging on despicable. But these women are behaving in a rational and sensible way. As rising UK politician Liz Truss explained to me: “In politics, one’s gender is quite an important factor in the way people look at you. If you’re an analyst or an accountant, the output is the set of accounts, the report. Whereas if you’re a politician the output is the person. Your physical appearance is more important, the way your voice sounds, your backstory, all of those are important in a way they’re not in many other careers. And the initial impression is very strong.”
Initial impressions are critical for undecided voters on the eve of an election. They are critical on the campaign trail. In the UK system, they are critical in getting your party’s nomination. Local branches of the major parties decide on their candidate at selection meetings at which shortlisted contenders speak and are quizzed. Your performance at such a meeting and the image you project decide your fate.
None of this is specific to women. Elderly Chinese male politicians all have black hair because it’s dyed, not because the Chinese don’t go gray. But signaling and first impressions have very particular implications for women, because looking young and looking healthy, with gleaming hair and clear skin, are prime female signals.
If you’re a female politician, you don’t try to look like a would be topless model. But you do, for very good reason, try to look slim, healthy, attractive and reasonably young. The US senators who worry about gray hairs are not trying to attract mates; their ages are matters of public record, and they are interested in power and influence, not reproduction. They know, however, that age in women is not associated with power and fitness: it is the wrong signal and not one they want to emit. And I bet none of them is obese, either.
Excerpted from The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World by Alison Wolf. Copyright © 2013 by Alison Wolf. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.