In what we label the “femme fatale” effect, we proposed and found support for the notion that attractive businesswomen are judged as being less truthful than less attractive women for reasons rooted in sexual insecurity. In Study 1 (n = 198; U.S. participants), attractiveness predicted less perceived truthfulness for female, but not male, leaders delivering negative organizational news. Next, we revealed limitations of the lack-of-fit explanation; this effect persisted when the attractive woman was in a feminine role in Study 2 (n = 155; U.S. participants), in a feminine industry in Study 3 (n = 286; U.S. participants), and delivering positive rather than negative news in Study 4 (n = 148; U.S. participants). In Study 5 (n = 209; U.S. participants), the effect was eliminated when participants were primed to feel sexually secure, but maintained among those primed to feel generally secure, and truthfulness predicted trust in the target’s leadership. In Study 6 (n = 206; U.S. participants), we again eliminated the femme fatale effect by priming sexual security and extended our findings by demonstrating that perceptions of truthfulness predicted perceived deservingness of termination.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Ashmore, R. D., Solomon, M. R., & Longo, L. C. (1996). Thinking about fashion models: A multidimensional approach to the structure of perceived physical attractiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 1083–1104. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672962211001.
Bar-Tal, D., & Saxe, L. (1976). Perceptions of similarly and dissimilarly attractive couples and individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 772–781. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2062.
Bass, B. M., & Avolio, B. J. (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Sexual economics: Sex as a female resource for social exchange in heterosexual interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 339–363. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr0804_2.
Baumeister, R. F., Catanese, K. R., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Is there a gender difference in strength of sex drive? Theoretical views, conceptual distinctions, and a review of relevant evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 242–273. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327957PSPR0503_5.
Baxter, J. (2012). Women of the corporation: A sociological perspective of senior women’s leadership language in the U.K. Journal of SocioLinguistics, 16, 81–107. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00520.x.
Boltz, M. G., Dyer, R. L., & Miller, A. R. (2010). Are you lying to me? Temporal cues for deception. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 29, 458–466. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927X10385976.
Braun, S., Peus, C., & Frey, D. (2012). Is beauty beastly? Gender-specific effects of leader attractiveness and leadership style on followers’ trust and loyalty. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie, 220, 98–108. https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000101.
Brewer, G., & Archer, J. (2007). What do people infer from facial attractiveness? Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 39–49. https://doi.org/10.1556/JEP.2007.1002.
Buchan, N. R., Croson, R. T. A., & Solnick, S. (2008). Trust and gender: An examination of behavior, biases, and beliefs in the investment game. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 68, 466–476. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2007.10.006.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017). Labor force statistics from the current population. Retrieved on February 26, 2018 from https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm.
Burriss, R. P., & Little, A. C. (2006). Effects of partner conception risk phase on male perception of dominance in faces. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 297–305. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2006.01.002.
Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1–49. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X00023992.
Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory – An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204–232. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.100.2.204.
Butler, J. K. (1991). Toward understanding and measuring conditions of trust: Evolution of a conditions of trust inventory. Journal of Management, 17, 643–663. https://doi.org/10.1177/014920639101700307.
Cash, T. F., Gillen, B., & Burns, D. S. (1977). Sexism and beautyism in personnel consultant decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology, 62, 301–310. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.62.3.301.
Cohen, L. L., & Shotland, R. L. (1996). Timing of first sexual intercourse in a relationship: Expectations, experiences, and perceptions of other. Journal of Sex Research, 33, 291–299. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499609551846.
Cook, J., & Wall, T. (1980). New work attitude measures of trust, organizational commitment and personal need non-fulfilment. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 53, 39–52. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8325.1980.tb00005.x.
De Vita, E. (2010). Trust and the female boss. Retrieved on February 28, 2018 from https://www.managementtoday.co.uk/trust-female-boss/article/1023469.
DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 979–995. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.119.
Dermer, M., & Thiel, D. L. (1975). When beauty may fail. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 1168–1176. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0077085.
Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 285–290. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0033731.
Driscoll, J. W. (1978). Trust and participation in organizational decision making as predictors of satisfaction. Academy of Management Journal, 21, 44–56. https://doi.org/10.5465/255661.
Eagly, A. H. (1987). Sex differences in social behavior: A social-role interpretation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Eagly, A. H. (2003). The rise of female leaders. Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie, 34, 123–132. https://doi.org/10.1024//0044-3518.104.22.168.
Eagly, A. H. (2007). Female leadership advantage and disadvantage: Resolving the contradictions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2007.00326.x.
Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109, 573–598. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.109.3.573.
Eagly, A. H., Johannesen-Schmidt, M. C., & van Engen, M. L. (2003). Transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles: A meta-analysis comparing women and men. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 569–591. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.129.4.569.
FBI. (2012). Crime in the United States. Retrieved on February 28, 2018 from https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/tables/42tabledatadecoverviewpdf/table_42_arrests_by_sex_2012.xls.
Forgas, J. P., & East, R. (2008). On being happy and gullible: Mood effects on skepticism and the detection of deception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1362–1367. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2008.04.010.
Fredrickson, B. L., & 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.
Gee, L. K., Migueis, M., & Parsa, S. (2017). Redistributive choices and increasing income inequality: Experimental evidence for income as a signal of deservingness. Experimental Economics, 20, 894–923. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10683-017-9516-5.
Giessner, S. R., & van Knippenberg, D. (2008). “License to fail”: Goal definition, leader group prototypicality, and perceptions of leadership effectiveness after leader failure. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 105, 14–35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2007.04.002.
Gilstrap, J. B., & Collins, B. J. (2012). The importance of being trustworthy: Trust as a mediator of the relationship between leader behaviors and employee job satisfaction. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 19, 152–163. https://doi.org/10.1177/1548051811431827.
Glick, P., & Fiske, S. (1996). The ambivalent sexism inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491–512. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1241.
Hamermesh, D. S., & Biddle, J. E. (1994). Beauty and the labor market. The American Economic Review, 84, 1174–1194. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2117767.
Hayes, A. (2013). Introduction to mediation, moderation, and conditional process analysis: A regression-based approach. New York: The Guilford Press.
Heilman, M. E., & Saruwatari, L. R. (1979). When beauty is beastly: The effects of appearance and sex on evaluations of job applicants for managerial and nonmanagerial jobs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 23, 360–372. https://doi.org/10.1016/0030-5073(79)90003-5.
Heilman, M. E., & Stopeck, M. H. (1985a). Being attractive, advantage or disadvantage? Performance-based evaluations and recommended personnel actions as a function of appearance, sex, and job type. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35, 202–215. https://doi.org/10.1016/0749-5978(85)90035-4.
Heilman, M. E., & Stopeck, M. H. (1985b). Attractiveness and corporate success: Different causal attributions for males and females. Journal of Applied Psychology, 70, 379–388. https://doi.org/10.1037//0021-9010.70.2.379.
Hosoda, M., Stone-Romero, E. F., & Coats, G. (2003). The effects of physical attractiveness on job-related outcomes: A meta-analysis of experimental studies. Personnel Psychology, 56, 431–462. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2003.tb00157.x.
Infanger, M., Rudman, L. A., & Sczesny, S. (2016). Sex as a source of power? Backlash against self-sexualizing women. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 19, 110–124. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430214558312.
Johnson, S. K., Podratz, K. E., Dipboye, R. E., & Gibbons, E. (2010). Physical attractiveness biases in ratings of employment suitability: Tracking down the “beauty is beastly” effect. The Journal of Social Psychology, 15, 301–318. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224540903365414.
Johnson, S. K., Sitzmann, T., & Nguyen, A. T. (2014). Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful: Acknowledging appearance mitigates the “beauty is beastly” effect. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 125, 184–192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2014.09.006.
Jones, E. E. (1964). Ingratiation. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Kanter, R. M. (1977). Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books.
Kennard, A. R., Willis, L. E., Robinson, M. J., & Knoblock-Westerwick, S. (2016). The allure of Aphrodite: How gender-congruent media portrayals impact adult women’s possible future selves. Human Communication Research, 42, 221–245. https://doi.org/10.1111/hcre.12072.
Lagace, R. R. (1991). An exploratory study of reciprocal trust between sales managers and salespersons. The Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 11, 49–58. https://doi.org/10.1080/08853134.1991.10753868.
Langlois, J. H., Kalakanis, L., Rubenstein, A. J., Larson, A., Hallam, M., & Smoot, M. (2000). Maxims or myths of beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 390–423. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.126.3.390.
Liou, T. K. (1995). Understanding employee commitment in the public organization: A study of the juvenile detention center. International Journal of Public Administration, 18, 1269–1295. https://doi.org/10.1080/01900699508525052.
Locher, P., Unger, R., Sociedade, P., & Wahl, J. (1993). At first glance: Accessibility of the physical attractiveness stereotype. Sex Roles, 28, 729–743. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00289990.
Mayer, R. C., & Davis, J. H. (1999). The effect of performance appraisal system on trust for management: A field quasi-experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 123–136. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.84.1.123.
McGloin, R., & Denes, A. (2018). Too hot to trust: Examining the relationship between attractiveness, trustworthiness, and desire to date in online dating. New Media & Society, 20, 919–936. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816675440.
Mongeau, P. A., Hale, J. L., & Alles, M. (1994). An experimental investigation of accounts and attributions following a sexual infidelity. Communication Monographs, 61, 326–344. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637759409376341.
Nanus, B. (1989). The leader’s edge: The seven keys to leadership in a turbulent world. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books.
Netchaeva, E., Kouchaki, M., & Sheppard, L. D. (2015). A man’s (precarious) place: Men’s experienced threat and self-assertive reactions to female superiors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 1247–1259. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167215593491.
Olson, I. R., & Marshuetz, C. (2005). Facial attractiveness is appraised in a glance. Emotion, 5(4), 498–502. https://doi.org/10.1037/1528-35126.96.36.1998.
Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Moorman, R. H., & Fetter, R. (1990). Transformational leader behaviors and their effects on followers’ trust in leader, satisfaction and organizational citizenship behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 1, 107–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/1048-9843(90)90009-7.
Prentice, D. A., & Carranza, E. (2002). What women and men should be, shouldn’t be, are allowed to be, and don’t have to be: The contents of prescriptive gender stereotypes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 269–281. https://doi.org/10.1111/1471-6402.t01-1-00066.
Reb, J., Goldman, B. M., Kray, L. J., & Cropanzano, R. (2006). Different wrongs, different remedies? Reactions to organizational remedies after procedural and interactional justice. Personnel Psychology, 59, 31–64. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2006.00773.x.
Rhodes, G., Simmons, L. W., & Peters, M. (2005). Attractiveness and sexual behavior: Does attractiveness enhance mating success? Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 186–201. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.014.
Ritts, V., Patterson, M. L., & Tubbs, M. E. (1992). Expectations, impressions, and judgments of physically attractive students: A review. Review of Educational Research, 62, 413–426. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2017.1307320.
Robinovich, J., Ossa, X., Baeza, B., Krumeich, A., & van der Borne, B. (2018). Embodiment of social roles and thinness as a form of capital: A qualitative approach towards understanding female obesity disparities in Chile. Social Science & Medicine, 201, 80–86. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2018.02.006.
Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., & Camerer, C. (1998). Not so different after all: A cross-discipline view of trust. Academy of Management Review, 23, 393–404. https://journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/amr.1998.926617
Schwarz, S., & Hassebrauck, M. (2012). Sex and age differences in mate-selection preferences. Human Nature, 23, 447–466. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-012-9152-x.
Shackelford, T. K. (2003). Preventing, correcting and anticipating female infidelity: Three adaptive problems of sperm competition. Evolution and Cognition, 9, 90–96. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474704915618411.
Singh, D. (2004). Mating strategies of young women: Role of physical attractiveness. Journal of Sex Research, 41, 43–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224490409552212.
Sprecher, S., Sullivan, Q., & Hatfield, E. (1994). Mate selection preferences – gender differences examined in a national sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 1074–1080. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.524.
Stephan, C. W., & Langlois, J. H. (1984). Baby beautiful: Adult attributions of infant competence as a function of infant attractiveness. Child Development, 55, 576–585. https://doi.org/10.2307/1129969.
Strauss, E. M. (2013). Iowa woman fired for being attractive looks back and moves on. Retrieved on August 20, 2013 from http://abcnews.go.com/Business/iowa-woman-fired-attractive-back-moves/story?id=19851803.
Tannahill, R. (1980). Sex in history. New York: Stein and Day.
Townsend, J. M., & Levy, G. D. (1990). Effects of potential partners’ physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status on sexuality and partner selection. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 19, 149–164. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01542229.
Watkins, M. B., Smith, A. N., & Aquino, K. (2013). The use and consequences of strategic sexual performances. Academy of Management Perspectives, 27, 173–186. https://doi.org/10.5465/amp.2010.0109.
Williams, M. J., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2016). The subtle suspension of backlash: A meta-analysis of penalties for women’s implicit and explicit dominance behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 142, 165–197. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000039.
Winston, J. S., O’Doherty, J., Kilner, J. M., Perrett, D. I., & Dolan, R. J. (2007). Brain systems for assessing facial attractiveness. Neuropsychologia, 45, 195–206. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.05.009.
Conflict of Interest
There are no conflicts of interest. The research was determined to be exempt from full IRB review.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
About this article
Cite this article
Sheppard, L.D., Johnson, S.K. The Femme Fatale Effect: Attractiveness is a Liability for Businesswomen’s Perceived Truthfulness, Trust, and Deservingness of Termination. Sex Roles 81, 779–796 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01031-1
- Attractiveness bias
- “Beauty is beastly”
- “What is beautiful is good”
- Gender and leadership