For decades, self-assured women have considered it a mark of pride to get male coworkers and bosses to see past their looks. But if feminism is about gender equality, Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, says that the best way to even the score at work is, well, to work it. As she argues in her controversial new book, Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, attractiveness is a significant factor in determining success for men and women alike. And when it comes to tapping into the power of erotic capital, she says, “Women have a lot of catching up to do.”
You’ve studied women’s issues for many years. What sparked your interest in the value of their so-called erotic capital?
My earlier research was focused very much on the pay gap and the explanations for it. Then I moved on to looking more at women’s position in the family. Eventually it seemed that I needed to look at what the relative importance of earnings was within bargaining in the household. Education seemed to be a factor, and I looked at that. Then it seemed that relative attractiveness was a factor -- the idea that men seek out beautiful women and wives. I assumed therefore that a beautiful wife would have more power in the relationship.
When I looked into all the research, I realized that actually beauty has enormous power and enormous value, not only in private life, but also in all other social and economic contexts. In the workplace, in politics, in sports, in the arts, in all areas where there is any kind of social interaction, the research shows that physical and social attractiveness have an impact -- a serious impact, not a small impact.
In terms of earning power, you found that erotic capital can provide a 10-to 15 per cent boost for women. How did you arrive at that figure?
The book reviews a huge amount of research. The broad picture seems to be that in Western societies, erotic capital can boost earnings, all else equal, somewhere between 10 per cent and and 20 per cent. But the overall consensus seems to now that it boosts earnings for men around plus 17 per cent, and it boosts earnings for women around plus 12 per cent. Therefore, there’s a clear sex difference there, which is clearly a new form, a new area of sex discrimination, which really needs to be addressed.
Another study that was carried out more recently in Shanghai, China, showed that the earnings market for women is something like double what it is in Europe. So one of the points that I’m making in the book is that erotic capital for women -- attractiveness for women -- is actually rewarded less well in the Western world because, culturally, we have this big down on beauty being superficial and trivial and only skin deep, and therefore it shouldn’t really count or matter. In other cultures -- the Chinese is just one and I think southern Europe is another one -- erotic capital is valued, and is seen as more worthwhile.
The key thing I’m showing in the book is that attractiveness, when it’s compared with other factors, seems to be of equal value in economic terms in terms of raising adult income to educational qualifications. That really is very substantial mark up.
Are there specific industries or professions where erotic capital is particularly valuable?
The most obvious where erotic capital has economic value is in the entertainment industry. But for most people, the rewards are in ordinary, everyday occupations. And it isn’t necessarily [about] physical beauty. It’s more often social charm, social skills and social intelligence -- the ability to relate to people.
Studies have shown that people who are attractive are more persuasive. People cooperate with them more, and therefore they’re more effective in teamwork, and so on. I think people ought to recognize that even in occupations that are on the face of it about intelligence and expertise, like being a lawyer or a manager, actually being attractive is an important additional asset.
You’ve said that women can leverage erotic capital further when they’re in the minority. Can you explain how that works?
Women being in a minority is more important in private life. In the marriage market, if there are more men seeking partners spouses than there are available women, then obviously women have the advantage.
In the workplace, I think it’s really more about social skills and good social presentation. My example of a successful women in that area is [managing director of the International Monetary Fund] Christine Lagarde, who obviously has intellectual skills, qualifications and huge expertise, originally as a corporate lawyer and then as a finance minister.
But she has also, like many French women, invested in physical attractiveness. So she is very socially presentable, and has extreme charm and good social skills. She is a minority woman [in finance] and extremely successful her field, but having erotic capital has been an additional asset to her. I’m sure she would agree with that.
So what’s the take-away message for women?
Women have to realize that being attractive has social and economic value, and shouldn’t allow themselves to be swayed by this argument that it’s superficial or trivial. They should feel confident when they are negotiating or bargaining, for example, for a pay rise or a promotion.
In the workplace, the emphasis is very much on social attractiveness: dressing well and appropriately; fitness and liveliness; social intelligence; ability to get on well with colleagues. In private life, the emphasis is more on physical attractiveness, and sex appeal and beauty.
But in both spheres, being attractive has real value, and women should recognize that and that men are exploiting it much more fully than women are at the moment.
Is there a danger of taking your advice about tapping into erotic capital too far?
I don’t know anyone -- and I can’t think of anyone -- who could be too attractive.
But isn’t it possible, particularly at work, to sex it up too much? Isn’t there a risk of emphasizing erotic capital at the expense of other attributes, like intelligence?
It’s not about sexuality. If we go back to my example of Christine Lagarde, there is nothing sexual about the way she presents herself in public at all. She is extremely fit. She is slim. She invests in dressing well and presenting well. She has an appropriate hairstyle.
I don’t see how you can say that doing that is somehow at the expense of her education. Her education is not diminished by looking smart and her intelligence is not diminished by looking smart. There’s no zero-sum gain here.
The book is generating a lot of controversy. How would you respond to those who say that the idea of erotic capital is anti-feminist?
I don’t think this is an anti-feminist book at all. In fact, it’s quite the contrary.
Again, I would come back to Christine Lagarde. The French approach to these things is that it makes sense for men as well as women to invest in looking good, being presentable, being charming, having good social skills. I’m simply saying, given that there is already very clearly a sex difference in the returns to erotic capital and attractiveness, that women have a lot of catching up to do.