SURREY, England — Women who wear “sexy” outfits to their college graduation are considered less competent than those who opt for more conservative clothing, a new study finds.
Researchers from the University of Surrey say their work shows how women are subject to biases that can be potentially harmful to one’s career and self-esteem.
“The intelligence and competence of females is unfairly linked to how they present themselves,” says Dr Fabio Fasoli, a lecturer in social psychology at the university, in a media release. “A top student who decides to wear a short dress to her graduation is perceived to be less capable than another who chooses to wear trousers and a jacket.”
For the study, the authors showed study participants 24 recent photos of Italian women from their college graduations. Half of the women in the photos wore outfits considered sexy, such as short skirts, low necklines, and high heels. The other half were wearing clothing considered more professional: jackets with pants. Participants were tasked with guessing the final mark of each woman and rating their sexiness, competence, and how appropriate they believed her outfit was.
The results showed that people viewed the women in the jackets and trousers to be dressed more appropriately for the occasion, and to be more competent than those in sexier clothing. They were also believed to have achieved a greater final mark.
“It is often thought that how we dress is a reflection of our personality but this may not be the case for women, given that they are constantly scrutinized for their appearance and that unmerited conclusions are drawn about them, including their intelligence and professional capability,” says Fasoli.
A second experiment only added to the findings. A group of 573 adults — including 223 female college students, 55 professors, and 295 members of the general population — came to the same conclusions after being shown photographs of 37 female students who wore both sexy and conservative clothing in different photos.
Yet for this experiment, even the female students who judged the photos agreed that their conservatively-dressed peers were more likely to land a job and have a successful career versus those in the more revealing attire. On the other hand, the adults from the general population viewed those dressed more liberally to have the career advantage.
Perhaps least surprising was the finding that men who viewed the photos were more likely than women to choose a sexy outfit if it were up to them.
“Our findings indeed indicate that, although people generally agree that they should not ‘judge a book by its cover,’ they still do so even in the context of higher education where intellectual performance, and not the student outfit, should be valued,” the authors conclude.
The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.