The psychology of viewing attractive women in business as femme fatales

An image of a woman to illustrate the stereotype of attractive women in business being seen as femme fatales
© iStock/kieferpix

A researcher from Washington State University has found that attractive women in business are considered less trustworthy, less truthful and more worthy of being fired.

The study argues that these feelings towards attractive women in business can be explained by the ‘femme fatale effect’, which taps into the primal psychology of sexual insecurity, jealousy and fear among men and women of attractive women.

Assessing the trustworthiness of women in business

Leah Sheppard, the lead author and an assistant professor of management in the WSU Carson College of Business, said: “Highly attractive women can be perceived as dangerous and that matters when we are assessing things like how much we trust them and whether we believe that what they are saying is truthful.”

According to Sheppard, for attractive women are: “Going to be challenged in terms of building trust. That’s not to say that they can’t do it. It’s just that trust is probably going to form a bit more slowly.”

Social and evolutionary factors

The lead author argues that both evolutionary and social factors are at play. Evolutionarily, she says, women have used their attractiveness to get mates and see more attractive women as competition for their partner, while men have evolutionarily been drawn to attractive women but view them as less trustworthy because their attractiveness may make them unfaithful, risking raising children that were not their own. Socially, both men and women find it unfair or deceitful that attractive women may be able to use their looks to gain advantages in the work place.

The femme fatale effect

Sheppard explained: “There’s two dueling stereotypes here. You have the ‘what is beautiful is good’ stereotype, meaning that in general attractive people should fare better across their lifespan. We can say that that’s generally true.”

However, she added: “It becomes more nuanced when we look at gender. For women there are certain contexts in which they don’t seem to benefit from their beauty.”

Reducing the stereotype

Sheppard argued that the femme fatale effect could be reduced by people being more conscious of the stereotypes that they use, however, she recognised that people are often unwilling to acknowledge that they use these stereotypes to begin with.

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