Like it or not, we all do it: We judge others, in part, by their appearance. Research shows, for instance, that people associate competence with some facial features, and competent-looking people get more votes, land more prestigious jobs, and climb higher in military careers. Gender stereotypes can also interact with appearance to influence our perceptions of individuals’ underlying personality traits.
In their paper “Audit Partner Facial Traits, Gender, and Career Outcomes,” forthcoming in Accounting, Organizations and Society, Culverhouse’s Drs. Chezham L. Sealy and Quinn T. Swanquist, along with collaborators Yuzhou Chen (University of Nebraska at Omaha) and Robert L. Whited (North Carolina State University), investigated how facial traits relate to career outcomes for audit partners. After collecting photographs of audit partners, the researchers asked raters to make inferences about the partner in a given photo’s attractiveness, competence, professionalism, likability, trustworthiness, and so on. They then compared this information to the partner’s client portfolio, with attention to factors like portfolio size and largest client.
The researchers found that:
- Gender and attractiveness of audit partners, by themselves, seemed to have little association with client portfolios.
- Audit partners—male or female—with traditionally masculine facial structures were more likely to manage larger portfolios and work for more prestigious (Big 4) employers.
But most interestingly, they estimated that partners whose facial appearance violated common gender stereotypes tended to be less successful. For instance, male partners whose faces appeared warmer, and female partners whose faces appeared more competent tended to have smaller portfolios. The findings suggest that unconscious trait inferences drawn simply from how someone appears may have significant costs for individuals career success. However, awareness of biases like these could help create hiring and advancement processes that are more equitable, enfranchising more potential audit partners based on their actual ability, not their facial features.