Attractive women get better grades – unless school is online: study
The pretty privilege is real, according to a new study of college students — or at least it was, until COVID-19 leveled the playing field.
A recent paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Economics Letters found that men and women in certain college courses got better grades the more physically attractive they were – but when learning moved online during the pandemic, the report found that women lost their edge while men retained it.
Study author Adrian Mehic, a fifth-year doctoral student at Sweden’s Lund University, said his paper was the first to analyze the impact of virtual learning on the « beauty premium ». , or the advantage of being physically attractive.
That said, there has been plenty of other research on the benefits of attractiveness. For example, pretty people are often more confident, satisfied with their lives and would have less likely to engage in criminal activity, according to recent studies.
« We know those who are super attractive versus those who are very unattractive, there could be a 10-12% pay gap between them, » Mehic told The Star, citing recent research. « …Now, with our study, we know that this discrimination also exists in the higher education system. »
Mehic’s project followed 307 industrial engineering students during their first and second years at Lund University, tracking their academic performance before and after switching to online learning during COVID-19. To rank the attractiveness of each student, Mehic assembled a jury of 74 people to rate the students on a scale of one to ten.
As expected, Mehic found that attractiveness was positively correlated with better grades in non-quantitative courses like business or humanities, which rely more on student-teacher interaction. The effect was not present in quantitative courses like math and physics.
This correlation disappeared with the shift to distance learning, but only for female students. The attractive male students retained their beauty bonus, a « big surprise » for Mehic.
« These results suggest that the return to facial beauty is likely due primarily to discrimination for females and the result of a productive trait for males, » Mehic hypothesized in the paper.
For example, he believed attractiveness in men could lead to increased confidence and perseverance, which would translate into greater overall productivity. On the other hand, the beauty bonus for women may stem from discrimination by instructors, Mehic said.
“In this study, most of the teachers or professors are men. Which would make sense for them to discriminate in favor of attractive women in most cases,” Mehic continued.
Mehic also noted that “the effect was clearly stronger in classes taught by men… But there is evidence that female teachers either discriminated against or gave attractive women higher grades as well,” a- he declared.
Women can still benefit from increased productivity through attractiveness, Mehic added, although he thinks it’s less pronounced because « I think women are generally less confident… and we know from tons of other studies that women generally have lower self-esteem than men. » .”
For example, a 2016 study of 48 countries and 985,937 people found that men consistently reported higher self-esteem than women, and the gap was significantly larger in Western countries.
For Lauren Bialystok, associate professor of ethics and education at the University of Toronto, Mehic’s findings are supported by a « very well-established body of literature » that found humans have a bias toward beauty.
However, given the relatively small sample size of Sweden-based Mehic, Bialystok recommended that the subject be « studied and replicated further before we can say that there are decisive differences between online learning and in-person learning on this particular phenomenon,” she said. « But I think it all sounds very plausible. »
Bialystok also warned that the factors contributing to the beauty premium for both genders could be more multifaceted than depicted. There’s probably more than one explanation for the phenomenon — for example, « women who aren’t perceived as beautiful might get lower ratings than they deserve everywhere, » she said.
Meanwhile, Mehic argued that her findings could be generalized to a wider population, as similar results have been seen in other beauty studies. Mehic considers that his research has « opened a door for many other scientists who wish to carry out similar studies ».
He also confirmed that when courses were online, women who were perceived as less attractive overall saw a slight increase in their grades.
Speaking of solutions, Mehic said anonymizing exam and assignment grading could help eliminate bias.
Meanwhile, Bialystok noted that it’s part of human nature to judge people based on their looks. There’s not much we can do to prevent this from happening other than being aware it exists and doing our best to be fair, she said.
« It’s one of our implicit biases that I think most people don’t recognize, so I want to be very careful not to assign moral blame or insinuate that anyone has ever given a woman an advantage because ‘he thought she was beautiful was sexist, » she said. « I don’t think it works that way. »
“…In a sexist world where the main currency of women has always been their physical attractiveness and their ability to play a feminine role in accordance with heterosexual male expectations, women perceived as beautiful and compatible with the feminine role have obtained advantages and privileges which other women don’t have,” Bialystok said.
« It’s not fair, but it’s also hard to blame women when that’s how the system is set up. »
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