Women in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere around the world tend to resist the idea that their physical appearance should matter to their professional advancement. In our age of meritocracy and equality, women who accentuate their looks are thought to be superficial. With feminists also expressing disdain for female sex appeal, the unavoidable result is that when professional women display their beauty, charm or sexuality they are oftentimes disparaged and accused of lacking in intellect.
But do we have this all wrong?
According to British sociologist, Catherine Hakim, we just may. It’s not about flaunting sexuality around the workplace, but rather something she calls “erotic capital” – an overlooked human asset all women should exploit more fully. Her latest book, Honey Money – The Power of Erotic Capital, is coming under fire from female columnists who have challenged her proposal that women should make the most of all their assets to level the playing field at work.
Erotic capital is not just about looks but a combination of beauty, social skills, dress sense, physical fitness, liveliness and sex appeal – qualities exploitable by both genders but potentially more effective for women because they are more willing to work hard to acquire them – and they can be used to gain advantage from sex-starved men in the workplace.
How much of this is supported by actual research? More than we may think.
- Erotic capital can lead to more favorable treatment. Researchers have consistently found that attractive people of both sexes are perceived to be more competent and intelligent. Attractive adults are noticed more and treated more favorably, and they are more often welcomed into social networks, where they receive more cooperation and help from others.
- Erotic capital can translate into income. A number of studies show that, in the U.S. and Britain, there is a 10% to 20% “beauty premium” in earnings across the workforce.
- Erotic capital actually has a stronger effect for men. It’s actually been found that men reap more benefits from their attractiveness, particularly in managerial and professional occupations. A study conducted in the mid-1990s on data from the U.S. and Canada found that attractive men earn 17% more than unattractive men, on average, but the “beauty premium” for women was just 12%.
Over the course of our working lives, we compete for jobs, title promotions, pay raises, contracts, etc. And according to Hakim, being attractive and likeable can be the small factor that helps to tip the balance in our favor.
And while the cumulative benefits can be large, is it worth it? In companies where collaboration, relationship-building and social grace are essential components of success, are even marginal advantages in erotic capital still worth cultivating?