Dressing Sexy Hurts Women In High- But Not Low-Status Jobs

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As much as we might wish otherwise, looks matter in the workplace, and this is true for both men and women. Indeed, your physical appearance can affect everything from your likelihood of being hired to performance evaluations to promotions and pay raises. Several studies have found that, by and large, physical attractiveness is almost always an asset on the job, irrespective of gender [1]. So being sexy is good, right? Well, not necessarily. It turns out that being sexy and dressing sexy are two completely different things. Specifically, having naturally good looks may take you places, but flaunting those looks with provocative outfits could wipe out some of the benefits of being attractive, at least for women pursuing high-powered jobs.

In a recent study, college student participants were asked to rate their attitudes toward a business woman, as well as evaluate her traits and characteristics [2]. All participants viewed a brief video of a woman talking about her background and hobbies who was either described as a being a manager (i.e., a high-status occupation) or a receptionist (i.e., a low-status occupation). Furthermore, that woman either dressed so as to “emphasize her sex appeal” (i.e., she wore a tight skirt, high heels, and showed some cleavage) or she dressed in a more conservative fashion (i.e., black pants, turtleneck sweater, and flat shoes). Aside from varying her described occupation and her attire, everything else was the same across conditions, meaning that all participants saw a video in which the same woman talked about the same things.

Results indicated that, overall, sexy attire was viewed as less appropriate for both jobs than neutral attire, but it was not viewed as any worse for the manager than it was for the receptionist. When it came to emotional reactions, participants who saw the receptionist felt just as positive toward her no matter what she was wearing; in contrast, participants who viewed the manager felt significantly less positive toward her when she was dressed sexy compared to when she was dressed more conservatively. The same pattern of results occurred for trait ratings, such that perceptions of the receptionist’s intelligence and competence did not depend on what she was wearing, whereas the manager was seen as less competent and less smart when she dressed sexy compared to when she dressed conservatively.

In short, when a woman in a high-status job dresses sexy, she is penalized for it; however, clothing choices have no effect on attitudes toward women in low-status jobs. It appears that people’s notions about sexy women do not overlap with their notions about high-status careers (i.e., sexy women appear to be stereotyped as lacking the skills necessary for a managerial position), perhaps because we have been socially and culturally conditioned to view sexy women as objects.

Does dressing sexy matter for men? Although this study did not explicitly test the possibility, it seems unlikely because there is a lot more uniformity in how men dress in the business world. Men simply do not have as many clothing options available to emphasize their physical assets because they are largely limited to pants and button-up shirts. Thus, unfavorable reactions to sexy attire is an issue that is likely more consequential for women than it is for men in the workplace.

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[1] Hosoda, M., Stone-Romero, E. F., & Coats, G. (2003). The effects of physical attractiveness on job-related outcomes: A meta-analysis of experimental studies. Personnel Psychology, 56, 431–462.

[2] Glick, P., Larsen, S., Johnson, C., & Branstiter, H. (2005). Evaluations of sexy women in low- and high-status jobs. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29, 389-395.

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