Sexual insecurity causes attractive businesswomen to be judged as less truthful

New research indicates that attractive businesswomen are viewed as less truthful than their less attractive counterparts. This relationship appears to be related to sexual insecurity, which has lead the researchers to dub it the “femme fatale effect.”

The study, which was published in the journal Sex Roles, found that attractiveness predicted lower perceptions of truthfulness for women, but not men, who were delivering negative organizational news.

“I’ve always been drawn to research topics that turn a commonly-accepted notion on its head,” said study author Leah Sheppard, an assistant professor of management in the Carson College of Business at Washington State University.

“The idea that attractiveness can be a liability for women, but generally not for men, in certain work contexts is interesting to me, but I didn’t think that the common explanation (the lack-of-fit idea) was a sufficient explanation. I wanted to branch off in a different direction.”

The researchers conducted a series of six studies, with 1,202 participants in total.

The participants read a fictional newspaper articles about companies that had laid off employees. A company official in the article attributed the layoffs to a downturn in the economy. The article also included a photograph of the official making the statement.

The researchers varied the gender, attractiveness, and title of the official.

Regardless of whether they were identified as a senior executive or a public relations officer — or worked in manufacturing or nursing — the attractive women were consistently considered less truthful than the non-attractive women. In other words, the effect didn’t exist simply because the attractive women didn’t “fit” into masculine environments like manufacturing.

But the effect was eliminated when participants were asked to first think and write about a time when they felt completely secure and certain that their current or most recent romantic partner was faithful and committed to them alone.

“Both men and women have biases that can negatively influence how they view attractive women, even in work contexts. In the case of this research, attractive women were viewed as less truthful than nonattractive women,” Sheppard told PsyPost.

“We surmised that attractive women elicit romantic insecurity among observers, and sure enough we found that the femme fatale effect went away when we primed participants to feel romantically secure before they observed and made ratings of an attractive woman.”

How the femme fatale effect plays out in real-life organizations, however, is not entirely clear.

“Our research cannot speak to for how long this effect persists. It might just be an initial reaction that dissipates once we get to know someone. Or it could be a first impression that creates a ripple effect; we might react with suspicion to highly attractive women at work, which then changes the way they behave towards us in a way that confirms our initial intuition,” Sheppard explained.

“Even if it’s the former (i.e., effect goes away after we get to know the woman), this could have implications for settings in which we make decisions without knowing the leader in whom we’re placing (or refusing to place) our trust (e.g., voting for politicians, buying stocks).”

The study, “The Femme Fatale Effect: Attractiveness is a Liability for Businesswomen’s Perceived Truthfulness, Trust, and Deservingness of Termination“, was authored by Leah D. Sheppard and Stefanie K. Johnson.