The Relationship Between Sexualized Appearance and Perceptions of Women’s Competence and Electability
Women do not have a uniform or standardized “suit” to wear in the workplace so they must make daily decisions about what to wear. Some propose that women should dress in a sexualized way to gain power and influence, but sexy attire is related to lower perceptions of competence for women in leadership positions. We explored the effect of revealing or conservative attire on perceptions of women’s leadership competence. We also used eye-tracker technology to determine whether looking at sexualized body parts (i.e., breasts, hemline) was related to lower perceptions of leadership competence and electability. A female candidate for a student senate presidency at a U.S. university wearing revealing clothing was perceived by 191 college students as less honest and trustworthy, electable, and competent than one wearing conservative clothing. Sexualized body parts were looked at longer when the candidate was wearing revealing clothing compared to conservative clothing. Furthermore, mediation analyses indicated that the revealing clothing led participants to gaze at sexualized body parts, which, in turn, led to perceiving the candidate as less honest/trustworthy, which lowered their evaluations of her competence and electability. These findings suggest that viewing a woman in a sexy outfit can lead others to stare more at her body and make negative evaluations of her personal attributes. This finding has implications for the choices women make in workplace and leadership contexts.
KeywordsEye-tracking Competence Female workplace attire Sexual attire Person perception Electability
Compliance with Ethical Standards
My coauthors and I do not have any interests that might be interpreted as influencing or conflicting with this research. The procedures used in collection of data conform to current APA ethical standards for the protection of human subjects. These procedures were approved by the institutional review board of the University of Mary Washington. We also certify that the manuscript is not under review elsewhere and has not been previously published elsewhere in whole or in part.
- Abbey, A., Cozzarelli, C., McLaughlin, K., & Harnish, R. J. (1987). The effects of clothing and dyad sex composition on perceptions of sexual intent: Do women and men evaluate these cues differently. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 17, 108–126. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1987.tb00304.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA task force on the Sexualization of girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
- Ehlers, A. S. (2005). A study of recruitment competency indicators for potential hospitality employers. The Consortium Journal, 9, 59–68.Google Scholar
- Fredrickson, B. A., & Roberts, T.-A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women's lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173–206. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Fredrickson, B. L., Roberts, T.-A., Noll, S. M., Quinn, D. M., & Twenge, J. M. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 269–284. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2069.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Hakim, C. (2011). Erotic capital. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
- Hakim, C. (2012). Erotic capital, sexual pleasure and sexual markets. In O. Kontula (Ed.), Pleasure and health by education, councelling and treatment (pp. 27–44). Helsinki, Finland: Nordic Association for Clinical Sexology.Google Scholar
- Hayes, A. F. (2013). Introduction to mediation, moderation, and conditional process analyses. A regression based approach. New York City: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
- Heilman, M. E., & Stopeck, M. H. (1985). Being attractive: Advantage or disadvantage? Performance-based evaluations and recommended personnel actions as a function of appearance, sex, and job. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35, 202–215. https://doi.org/10.1016/0749-5978(85)90035-4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2006). The leadership challenge (Vol. 3). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
- Lindeman, T. (2004, March 2). Tough job climate causes casual look to give way to more formal attire. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.post-gazette.com/business/businessnews/2004/03/02/White-Collar-Suited-for-work-Tough-job-climate-causes-casual-look-to-give-way-to-more-formal-attire/stories/200403020171.
- McDonnell, G. H. (2008). Sexual empowerment: How erotic capital attracts wealth and power. Christchurch: McDonnell Publishing Company.Google Scholar
- McKinley, N. M., & Hyde, J. S. (1996). The objectified body consciousness scale: Development and validation. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20, 181–215. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1996.tb00467.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Ogle, J. P., & Damhorst, M. L. (1999). Dress for success in the popular press. In K. K. Johnson & S. Lennon (Eds.), Appearance and power (pp. 79–101). Oxford: Berg Publishing.Google Scholar
- Parnes, A. (2001, June 13). Dress-down is down if not quite out. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/13/jobs/dress-down-is-down-if-not-quite-out.html.
- Rucker, M., Anderson, E., & Kangas, A. (1999). Clothing, power, and the workplace. In K. K. P. Johnson & S. J. Lennon (Eds.), Appearance and power (pp. 59–78). New York: Berg.Google Scholar
- Rudman, L. A., Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Nauts, S. (2012). Status incongruity and backlash effects: Defending the gender hierarchy motivates prejudice against female leaders. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 165–179. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2011.10.008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Society for Human Resource Management. (2016). 2016 Employee benefits: A research report by the Society for Human Resource Management. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/Documents/2016%20SHRM%20Employee%20Benefits%20Full%20Report.pdf.
- Tobii Technology. (2011). Tobii T60 and T120 eye tracker, revision 4. User manual. Sweden (Headquarters): Author.Google Scholar
- What to wear: “Professional” vs. “business casual”. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://careerservices.princeton.edu/node/1279.