Does Beauty Matter?

Real estate practitioners discuss how to navigate stereotypes and judgments based on appearance on the job.

August 28, 2014

Maria Palacios knows she’s pretty. She won a fourth-grade beauty contest and brushed aside repeated requests to compete in pageants in her teens and 20s. (She says she’s too shy.)

Looks didn’t fuel her ego or hold her back. If anything, a pleasing appearance propelled her forward; she ran a successful beauty shop in Bellflower, Calif., for 25 years before entering real estate in 2003.

Early on, a few trainers suggested Palacios, a sales associate with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Bellflower, cover up her body, pull back her hair, wear glasses, and act strictly businesslike to curtail flirty husbands or jealous wives.

“But I [already] presented myself very professionally. I don’t dress sexy. I try to wear scarves and professional dresses that below my knees, but all my clothes are fitted,” Palacios says.

Research suggests that preconceived notions and stereotypes about looks — such as those held by Palacios’ trainers — can affect a person’s career.

In 2011, Israeli researchers Bradley J. Ruffle and Ze’ev Shtudiner sent 5,312 fake resumes and photos to 2,656 job postings. They found that the good-looking hypothetical female candidates — who had almost identical qualifications to their less-attractive counterparts — had to send 11 resumes to get a call back from an employer; plain-featured job seekers got a call back after sending seven resumes.

Careers and Appearance

Amy Hillock, a sales associate with RE/MAX DFW Associates, beat out 22 women last October to be crowned Mrs. Texas United America.

But Hillock is no pageant pro. A former professional ballet dancer who owned an event-planning company for 10 years before getting her real estate license in January 2013, she was talked into entering the regional pageant by Mrs. Dallas and Mrs. Oak Point.

Still, she acknowledges, people treat her differently when they find out about her pageant past. More often than not, other people introduce her as Mrs. Texas United America rather than by her name.

“Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it feels like a double-edged sword. I prefer to be pretty anonymous most of the time,” she says. “I don’t use it to get special treatment. I don’t use it to get people to look at me. If I can use it, it’s to help the community or help forward the charities and organizations I’m involved with.”

But looks aren’t necessarily a hindrance. On the contrary, a study of midcareer lawyers, surveyed five years and 15 years after graduating from the same school, showed that better-looking attorneys often chose a specialty that involved more contact with the public, and they earned more money, billing at higher rates than their counterparts.

“I expect all those things to appear in real estate,” says the study’s author, Daniel S. Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched the influence of beauty on labor markets for 20 years.

In another study, Hamermesh found that attractive advertising executives who had the same skills as their more homely counterparts earned more annually: 12 percent more for men and 9 percent more for women. That’s about $230,000 over a lifetime, based on an average wage of $20 per hour.

Our image hang-ups, Hamermesh says, harken back to a time when beauty signified reproductive success. “It’s just something left over in our psyche,” he adds.

Three Tips for Dealing With Stereotypes

Passing judgment based on appearance may be human nature, but there are ways real estate pros can mitigate some stereotypes based on looks.

1. Work with clients: When working with couples, Hillock’s tactic is to cultivate a relationship with the woman. Hillock usually contacts the wife or girlfriendwhen e-mailing. “I copy the husband on the e-mail. When I call, I call the wife. When I go to the door and introduce myself, I always greet the wife first. I look at the wife more than I look at the husband, because I want her to know that I’m there to sell her house,” Hillock says.

2. Market your image with tact: Bruce Mulhearn, president and broker for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties in Cerritos, Calif., says no matter what you look like, you should find the thing that’s special to you and maximize it.

“Everyone has something unique. Attractiveness goes far beyond how we look,” he says. But Mulhearn insists that his agents have a photograph on their business card. “It’s not an ego thing. It’s a marketing thing. It’s important to identify to the world who you are,” he adds.

Dawn Van Dyke, e-PRO, SFR, a sales associate with Keller Williams Realty in Stuart, Fla., says you ultimately have to feel comfortable with how and where your image is posted. She doesn’t put her picture on her signs and doesn’t have a car magnet. “I don’t want people to contact me because of the way I look. And I’ve had a few people come online and make comments about my picture and say they want to meet me. I usually just delete them,” says Van Dyke.

3. Dress for success: Aim for appropriateness. “What I wear in Florida, I wouldn’t wear showing property in New York,” Van Dyke says. Many clients, as well as other real estate practitioners, won’t take you seriously if you’re dressed sloppily, she says.

Hillock recommends erring on the side of modesty. Choose fashions that might complement specific physical attributes in a tasteful way.

Palacios says the best accessories are wisdom, skill, experience, confidence, and character. “I work out every day. I stay fit. And I think looks do help in life. But so does charisma and energy and the synergy and passion that you have for the work; that’s contagious,” she says.

Stay Conscious of ‘Lookism’

Looks aside, mentoring and training, grooming, an inviting smile, and a sincere attitude and voice (even on the phone) can help real estate agents connect with clients on levels beyond the surface. Moreover, Mulhearn says the cost of antidiscrimination lawsuits should encourage brokers and managers to be more sensitive to and open about discussing the impact of “lookism” — discrimination in favor of the good-looking — in the workplace.

To minimize discrimination, city officials in Helsinki, Finland, started accepting anonymous job applications in 2012. But the European trend has not gained traction in the United States.

Hillock says beauty matters only when you make it matter.

“The Mrs. Texas United title isn’t going to help me sell houses. It’s just something I happened to do,” she says. “And if you’re a very attractive person, that’s great. But don’t oversell that part. Sell your personality, not your looks. Because in the end, your personality is what you’ll be left with. Looks fade.”

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