Do Sexy Profs Get Derailed From the Tenure Track?

A recent article has me worried; apparently there is a penalty associated with being a “sexy” professor.*  Until now, all I had been worried about was that the mother of one of the students in my "Economics of Sex and Love" course would complain that I had taught her progeny how blowjobs are priced—I had no idea that my colleagues might discount my ability based on the fact that I am such a hottie. Well, to be honest, that isn’t such a problem for me. I am certain that it is for other professors though. We are in a profession where physical appearance matters little and exuding sexuality might undermine one’s career, especially if it encourages more attentive students then we would like. This is a problem for female professors who often have to strive to find a balance between looking presentable and not looking like too much effort has been made on their appearance. After all, nothing says “I don’t take research seriously” faster than a mani-pedi. This has to be true for men as well: why else would so many successful academics wear tweed? The only possible explanation is that they realize the need to bring their sex appeal down a notch.


Recent research in social psychology reinforces this idea that there is a penalty associated with beauty.** It is commonly accepted that being beautiful is beneficial in a variety of ways: higher wages, better scholarships, more favorable court outcomes; but when it comes to seeking employment in jobs that are considered to be traditionally male it might very well be detrimental. The results of the study find that while beautiful men and women are considered more suitable then their less fortunate competitors for most occupations, if appearance in a specific occupation is not considered important, and if the occupation is considered masculine, then more attractive women are considered unsuitable. The flip-side of these results suggest that if an occupation is masculine and appearance is important, an attractive women might be able to compensate for her unsuitability with her good looks. The study finds no negative effect for men.  Attractive men are always perceived to be more suitable for jobs including the ones that are considered to be feminine.

Clearly appearance is not important in academia. Is being a professor considered a masculine profession? I think it probably depends on the field of study. It would be interesting to see if sexy female professors in typically more masculine fields face a harsher penalty for their attractiveness then those is typically more feminine fields. I for one work in probably the most feminized economics department in North America. They let me teach a whole course about sex, and everyone knows there’s nothing sexier than sex and economics.

* http://chronicle.com/article/Professors-Hot-at-Their-Ow/123822/

** Johnson, Stefanie, K., Kenneth E. Podratz, Robert L. Dipboye and Ellie Gibbons (2010). “Physical Attractiveness Biases in Ratings of Employment Suitability: Tracking Down the 'Beauty is Beastly' Effect.” Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 150, No. 3. 301 – 318. 

Thank you to my friend Daniel de Munnik for thinking that this subject is something I should worry about.

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