Air India and the beauty premium

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Air_india_3Over at the New York Times's Freakonomics Blog, Stephen Dubner contemplates the beauty premium. In a recent post, he decided to ask some real people whether looks matter in their career. Most of the people he spoke to said that looks mattered - the only exception was an environmental engineer who works with wastewater! Of course, Dubner's selection of people wasn't exactly random; one of the respondents is in the "adult entertainment" industry. And the respondents rate themselves on average about 8 out of 10 on a scale of attractiveness, which suggests the sample is a bit lopsided (or perhaps just highly self-regarding?).

In any case, while looks obviously matter in the adult entertainment industry, how much looks matter for the rest of us has been open to speculation. Now, at least according to some critics, it appears the High Court of India has decided to enforce the beauty premium as a matter of law. The High Court recently ruled in favor of Air India, which limited overweight staff to working on the ground. Writing in an op-ed in Ethical Corporation, Mallen Baker had harsh words for the decision:

I am not one of those who argues that fat is the new thin, and everybody should just be encouraged to feel great about themselves whatever size they are. If you are overweight, there are good reasons why you should do something about it. Health-wise it is better, most importantly.

But I am just not convinced that the Air India action in this case is anything other than a variant of the “young and pretty” stewardess argument. It is discrimination, plain and simple.

While it may or may not be the case that this is simple discrimination, there is a lot of evidence that attractiveness does play a significant role in earnings and career success. In an earlier blog post, Stephen Dubner discusses some of the research documenting the existence of a beauty premium. Although the research is not all unequivocal, it looks like tall people and those with whiter teeth earn more. Surveys in countries around the world have also found evidence that attractive people earn more.

So here's my (really unserious) question. Let's assume for a second that discrimation against the unattractive is regressive. If the result is greater inequality, does this then call for some kind of progressive policy to mitigate this inequality? Hopefully, pondering that will help keep you occupied for the weekend.


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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