By Peter Martin and Rachel Wells

The first Australian study of the financial return to physical attractiveness finds its worth an astounding $32,150 in annual salary, with men of above-average looks typically commanding $81,750 compared to $49,600 for men with below-average looks.

            Chilled: Stephen Zamykal relaxes at his Kensington home. Photo: Angela Wylie

The authors, Melbourne University economist Jeff Borland and former Australian National University economist Andrew Leigh find the ”plainness penalty” more important than the ”beauty premium”. Men whose looks are rated as below average by door-to-door interviewers typically earn 26 per cent less than normal. Men whose looks are rated as above average earn 22 per cent more.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

For women the effect is smaller and harder to measure.

”I found something similar when I looked at the effect of politicians’ appearance on their electability,” said Dr Leigh who is himself now a Labor member of Parliament.

”Good looks helped male candidates more than they helped women. It could be that attractive women come up against the stereotype that they can’t be both attractive and intelligent. There’s no such thing as the dumb-blond syndrome for men.”

Property and mortgage expert Stephen Zamykal agrees. A partner in five successful businesses, including National Property Buyers and a Mortgage Choice franchise, Mr Zamykal says he has never felt discriminated against because of his looks and says it possible they have helped.

”It’s hard to know,” said the 193-centimetre former AFL footballer, who played centre half-forward for Essendon and North Melbourne in the early 1990s.

”I don’t know if I am even good looking … I know some people say I’m lucky to be tall, as height gives you presence.”

The door-to-door researchers were asked to rate the appearance of the Australians they interviewed on a six-point scale ranging from ”very much more attractive than average” to ”well below average”. To check for robustness, Dr Leigh separately asked the interviewers to rate photos and found widespread agreement.

”It turns out beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder,” he says. ”There is a strong literature showing views about beauty are shared. If I took any two of your readers and asked them to rate the beauty of a set of photos they would come back with similar answers.”

Men with below-average looks were 15 per cent less likely than normal to be employed and were typically employed for a 9 per cent lower wage. They were also less likely to be married and less likely to be married to a woman of high income.

The findings about men remained constant across two surveys, an Australian National University survey in 1984 and one constructed by Dr Leigh and Professor Borland to replicate the ANU survey in 2009. But the findings for women changed, with looks now more important than in the past when it came to getting a job and getting married.

”It’s probably that the labour market for women is a whole lot different than a quarter of a century ago,” said Dr Leigh. ”Nothing much has changed for men, but with many more women being employed there’s more opportunity for ‘lookism’ to matter.”

A University of Texas economist, Daniel Hamermesh, has raised the possibility of subjecting poor looks to anti-discrimination legislation, in the same way as is done for race.

Dr Leigh disagrees, saying that would be a bridge too far.

”You would run into all sorts of definitional problems and it would water down the importance of existing categories of discrimination,” he says.

Note: This article was published on The Age on January 7, 2013.

Copyright© 2013 Fairfax Media.

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