Pretty girls get better grades: Attractiveness does affect women's scores — but not men's

A new study shows this bias comes from both male and female instructors, too

Published January 6, 2016 10:41PM (EST)

Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in "Election."
Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in "Election."

I pulled many all-nighters in college and graduate school. Long hours, with little to no sleep became my lifestyle, and I’d wake up each morning, do my best to look presentable, and do it all over again. I was an academic overachiever, and would rather lose sleep than lose face when it came to my grades. I did my best to make it look easy, turning in seminar papers in sundresses then strolling away as if I hadn’t spent the last three days obsessing over sentence structure and research. I graduated with honors, and was proud to achieve academic success.

But a new study sheds light on an ugly truth when it comes to women’s academic performance.

According to research presented at the American Economic Association yesterday, attractive women get better grades not due to higher intelligence, but professor bias. If men aren’t dating us because we’re too smart for our own good, then we’re making the grade for expertly applying mascara.

The study's researchers used a sample of more than 5,000 students and more than 100,000 grades and found that physical attractiveness affects the grades of women, not men.

Economic researchers at Metropolitan State University of Denver collected student ID photos, and had study participants rate the students’ attractiveness on a scale of one to ten. The research team later examined measures of academic achievement such as final course grades and ACT scores.

To determine attractiveness, the researchers established each rater’s baseline bias before showing the photos, which was later subtracted from the ratings assigned to each participant.

As it turns out, an increase of one standard deviation in terms of attractiveness for female students was found to correspond with a 0.024 grade increase based on a 4.0 scale.

Researchers later divided the female students into three groups -- average, more attractive, less attractive -- and found the women in the less attractive group received average course grades 0.067 points lower than those earned from the two other groups.

Rey Hernandez-Julian, one of the lead researchers, told Inside Higher Ed it could be “professors invest more time and energy into the better-looking students, helping them learn more and earn the higher grades” or perhaps educators “simply reward the appearance with higher grades given identical performance.”

The results of the study found the gender of the rater or professor didn’t matter. Both men and women tended to give attractive females higher grades. The disparity did not exist for men, or students taking online classes.

It’s disheartening to think about. I have attractive female friends who worked just as hard (if not harder) than I did in school who were equally proud of their academic accomplishments.

My friend Kristin, for example, stops hearts -- literally. A bombshell blonde, Kristin studied cardiovascular sciences at Oxford University, and we’ve had many conversations about pursuing advanced degrees and the discrimination that stems from being a woman in traditionally male-dominated fields of studies.

Oftentimes women are discriminated against for 1) being female and 2) being somewhat attractive. When will we stop judging women on their intelligence based on their looks? The study results can be damaging, too — my bone structure didn’t help me learn Latin conjugations any more in college than my boobs helped me master syntax in graduate school. None of my professors ever seemed to favor or disfavor me based on my looks, but to even question it cheapens the way I value my career as a scholar.

Whatever. At the end of the day I guess there’s worse things a woman can be than cute and cum laude.

By Erin Coulehan

Erin Coulehan is a freelance journalist with work in Rolling Stone, Elle, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @miss_coulehan

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Discrimination Education Gender Gender Bias Higher Education Psychology