I really wonder why US President Barack Obama had to take the trouble of phoning Kamala Harris — the first Indian American to be elected California’s Attorney General — to apologise to her for publicly describing her as ‘‘by far the best-looking attorney general in the country’ and adding for good measure, “It’s true!”, as if somebody disbelieved him.

It is no sin to express admiration for the looks and smart appearance of persons you know, even if they be of the opposite sex. In this case, Obama had known Kamala for years and they had been close friends, and he had every right to convey to her his affection and appreciation for becoming the top law officer of a State that is both the most populous and the most glittering, earning the apt nickname of ‘the Golden State’. In fact, all Indian Americans, in particular, and Indians, in general, will heartily applaud Obama for highlighting so graphically an achievement which is extraordinary by any standards.

Obama’s aides have made out that he apologised to Kamala for impliedly suggesting that she owed her elevation to her good looks rather than to her outstanding professional competence and the high regard in which she was held by the people of the State.

Actually, he need not have worried. Any number of studies in any number of countries and any number of books by any number of authors have come to the irrefutable conclusion that good looks do play a part all the way from scoring in interviews for appointment to getting higher pay and raises along with the perks and privileges of office, negotiating and winning contracts, and generally advancing in life faster and higher.

A premium for beauty

The studies had been carried out independently by institutions as far apart as the Universities of British Columbia, Duke, Tufts, Wisconsin, Luneburg and Melbourne, as well as by Newsweek and Yahoo!

The phenomenon is so deep-rooted that it has been assigned a distinct nomenclature in the corpus of literature on higher economics as a factor that can no longer be ignored. At one end of the scale it is called ‘the beauty premium’ and at the other end it results in ‘plainness penalty’.

Catherine Hakim, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, has even authored a book Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom explaining how beauty, sex appeal, body contours, charm, dress sense, liveliness and fitness — all constituting ‘the erotic capital’ — help women to get ahead at work. More to the point with reference to the Obama-Kamala episode, Hakim cites a US survey that found good-looking lawyers earn between 10 and 12 per cent more than less good-looking colleagues.

I have extracted below the findings I came across while surfing the Net on the role played by what a researcher has called ‘lookism’:

As high as 57 per cent of hiring managers were of the view that unattractive candidates, even if qualified, would have a hard time landing a job.

Men with below-average looks were 15 per cent less likely than normal to be employed and even when employed, will get a 9 per cent lower wage. On average, attractive men and women earn five and four per cent more than those less good-looking.


Indeed, some employers facetiously remarked that job seekers should spend as much time and money on their appearance as they do on perfecting their resume!

Physical and social attractiveness deliver substantial benefits in all social interaction, making a person more persuasive, able to secure the co-operation of colleagues, attract customers and sell products, as also land jobs and climb the career ladder ahead of those who are plain. Physical attractiveness is worth an astounding $32,150 in annual salary, with men of above-average looks typically commanding $81,750 compared with $49,600 for men with below-average looks.

This applies to the CEO level as well. Good looking CEOs are more likely to be rated more competent and have higher incomes. Researchers at The London Business School examined the faces of CEOs and determined that CEOs with wide faces had better run companies than CEOs with narrow faces!

In sum, best-looking seems to be equated with best-performing, although, to plain looking folks (in which primordial category I include myself), the whole thing is balderdash soaked in hogwash.

(This article was published on April 7, 2013)
XThese are links to The Hindu Business Line suggested by Outbrain, which may or may not be relevant to the other content on this page. You can read Outbrain's privacy and cookie policy here.