A study by the Metropolitan State University of Denver has found that Professors consider more than just test scores, class participation and quality of responses when awarding student grades; it turns out the for women, physical appearance also has its part to play.

The study, called Student Appearance and Academic Performance, was carried out by university economists Rey Hernández-Julián and Christina Peters. Using a sample of more than 5,000 students and 100,000 grades, scientists were able to determine the extent to which physical attractiveness influences grades.

Most faculty members would deny that physical appearance can be used as criteria for marking, but the study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association on Monday, has proved otherwise.

Findings demonstrate that among female students who are similarly qualified, those who are perceived as physically attractive are awarded higher grades than those who aren’t. For male students however, it was found that there was no significant relationship between physical appearance and achievement. These results remained the same regardless the teacher’s gender.

Earlier research has proved that this bias extends to later life, since better-looking adults tend to receive higher wages overall, an advantage that has roots firmly in adolescence; the teenage years are when the most attractive students receive the highest grades, making it much more likely that they’ll pursue a degree and reap the economic benefits long into the future.

“I’m making an argument that it doesn’t work in the same way for women,” says Caroline Heldman, associate professor of politics at Occidental College in LA. “We live in a beauty culture that values us for our attractiveness. Living in a culture where we value looks harms women.

“Attractive women will benefit overall in occupations, but when you’re talking about leadership positions, being sexually attractive actually works against you,” she said.

According to Inside Higher Ed, the two economists obtained a number of student ID photos, asking a selection of participants who did not attend or teach at the university to rate them in terms of attractiveness on a scale from 1-10. Next, they evaluated 168, 092 course grades awarded to the students, considering factors like ACT score as a control for academic ability.

As written by Inside Higher Ed: “For female students, an increase of one standard deviation in attractiveness was associated with a 0.024 increase in grade (on a 4.0 scale).”

Researchers then split female participants into three groups: ‘average’, ‘more attractive’ and ‘less attractive’, discovering that women classed as ‘less attractive’ generally received average course grades 0.067 points lower than those earned by participants in the other two groups. This shows that the attractiveness gap in grades tends to result more from lower grades for less attractive women than from higher grades for the most attractive women.

Interestingly, the study found that grade punishment for ‘unattractive’ women completely disappears in online education. When researchers compared students enrolled on the university’s digital course offerings, they found the online success of the ‘less attractive’ students to suggest that lower grades in-person were often determined by the student’s physical appearance.

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Hernández-Julián called the findings “troubling”, and asked: “Is it that professors invest more time and energy into the better looking students, helping them learn more and earn the higher grades? Or do the professors simply reward the appearance with higher grades given identical performance? The likely answer, given our growing understanding of the prevalence of implicit biases, is that professors make small adjustments on both of these margins.”

He later added: “Tools to address the presence of implicit racial bias in policing are becoming increasingly prevalent.  Similar tools might be useful in other environments where other implicit biases are prevalent, such as colleges and universities.”

Image via Shutterstock.

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