‘Femme fatale effect’: Attractive businesswomen seen as less trustworthy, study finds

PULLMAN, Wash. — Being beautiful may feel like an advantage to some women, but when it comes to doing business, attractive women are viewed as less trustworthy and more apt to being fired, a new study finds.

Researchers from Washington State University and the University of Colorado uncovered proof of what they call the femme fatale effect, an attitude they say has hampered businesswomen for decades. The term “femme fatale,” which is French for “fatal woman,” is used in lore to describe a sultry, seductive, yet sinister woman who intends to bring harm to men for her own gain. Such characters have existed in Western canon since ancient times. In Homer’s The Odyssey, for example, Odysseus is seduced and kept from his wife and home for a year by the goddess Circe.

The authors say the femme fatal effect today stems from primal feelings of sexual insecurity, jealousy, and fear among both men and women.

“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,” says lead authors Leah Sheppard, an assistant professor of management in the WSU Carson College of Business, in a university release.

For the study, researchers recruited 1,202 American adults online to participate in a six experiments aimed to determine how attractiveness affected their opinion of women in the workplace.

Researchers first drew images from a “professional woman” Google search query, and had participants rate each woman’s attractiveness. The first four studies had participants rate the truthfulness of women and men announcing layoffs in fictional news articles. Attractive women were consistently rated less truthful than non-attractive women and men, despite the professional title of the fictional man or woman, as well as differences in company culture that often hinge on gender (one that is decidedly masculine like an IT firm vs. hospitals, for example).

In a fifth study, before rating women once again, participants were “primed” to feel more strongly about their sexual security, that is, they were asked to remember a relationship in which their partner was both committed and trustworthy. They were also asked to write about a time they felt confident and happy with themselves. This time, the authors found that primed participants viewed the attractive women equally trustworthy as less attractive women, suggesting that the root cause of this bias stems from sexual insecurity.

The final experiment had some participants primed to feel sexually secure, and others to feel sexually insecure. Once again, those who felt secure viewed all women equally, whereas those primed to feel insecure frowned upon the beautiful women, considering them less truthful and worthy of being fired.

Sheppard says that because there are numerous historical stigmas attached to beauty, men and women may be able to fend off the femme fatale effect if they’re more mindful of the stigmas and stereotypes they believe. Yet because most people either fail to do this or simply won’t acknowledge these beliefs, the onus is often on attractive women, unfortunately, to be more transparent and work even harder to earn the respect those they’re dealing with.

“They’re going to be challenged in terms of building trust,” she says. “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.”

The study was published in the journal Sex Roles.

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