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Post-Secondary ‘Pretty Privilege’ is Real, But Different for Women and Men: Study

A young woman wearing jeans and a yellow top, holding books and smiling

Pretty privilege” — AKA the wide range of benefits, perks and opportunities that people who meet certain conventional beauty standards receive because of their looks — feels like it’s everywhere. Some examples of this type of social privilege seem obvious and somewhat inane (think: how some people never wait in lines or are regularly being offered freebies or upgrades just for existing), but some can be deeper reaching and more problematic (see: when someone gets promoted or offered better job opportunities because of how they look). But can pretty privilege impact things like our grades in college?

New research suggests that this could be the case. According to a recent paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Economics Letters, physically attractive men and women received better grades in certain university courses. However, when those courses shifted online during the COVID-19 pandemic, attractive women lost those benefits, while men retained them.

Related: What is the cost of unrealistic beauty standards?

Pretty privilege and academic outcomes

As the study’s author, fifth-year PhD student Adrian Mehic, explained, the paper looked at the “role of student facial attractiveness on academic outcomes under various forms of instruction, using data from engineering students in Sweden.” 

The project followed a sample of 307 students in their first and second years of studying industrial engineering at Sweden’s Lund University. The study tracked the students’ academic performance both before and after moving from in-person to online learning during the pandemic. How did they decide who was attractive or not? Mehic gathered a 74-person jury to rate students on a scale from one to 10 in order to rank their attractiveness.

See also: This is where beauty standards actually come from.

The study found that “attractive” students — both male and female — receive higher grades in non-quantitative subjects (where instructors often interact more with students compared to quantitative courses). 

However, when education moved online due to the pandemic, attractive female students saw their grades drop in these non-qualitative subjects. “However,” Mehic wrote in the study, “the beauty premium persisted for males, suggesting that discrimination is a salient factor in explaining the grade beauty premium for females only.”


So, what can these differences in beauty premiums mean? In the paper, Mehic suggests that the source of pretty privilege may come from different places for men and women. “Taken together, these findings suggest that the return to facial beauty is likely to be primarily due to discrimination for females, and the result of a productive trait for males.”

See also: The currency of beauty in the workplace.

As the Toronto Star explains further when discussing Mehic’s study results, the paper seems to suggest that “attractiveness in men could lead to boosts in confidence and perseverance, resulting in greater productivity overall. On the other hand, the beauty premium for women may stem from discrimination on the part of the instructors.”

So, could the source of pretty privilege for women come from how other people treat them (and thus dependent on other peoples’ perceptions of them), while the source of pretty privilege for men comes from the confidence that they get from knowing that they’re attractive? While there is definitely more room to study this, these questions are interesting to consider.

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