Would George Clooney make a successful company director? Or, Angelina Jolie the best president? Or, maybe Brad Pitt the next CEO of a Fortune 500 company? Well, it certainly would fit a notion that has always been believed – the more attractive a person is, the more likely it is that their looks positively affect their professional career, and the more likely they are to be successful.
In fact, a study in Finland substantiated this belief. The researchers studied both male and female political candidates, and found that beautiful people have the upper-hand when it comes to political elections, with the more attractive candidates being more successful than their competitors.
So, surely this would be the case in corporate director elections as well?
Well, that is what I along with my colleagues from Tilburg University and Newcastle University Business School wanted to find out.
To do so we started by gathering and reviewing data on 621 separate corporate director elections and re-elections in a number of UK firms between the years 1996-2007. In all of these elections, potential corporate directors provided a photograph of themselves to accompany their name and professional details in the election process, which was made available to all voters.
We then distributed these photographs to a number of anonymous raters, who were asked to rank these directors for various characteristics using only their photograph. Raters were asked to provide a numerical score between 1 and 5, for five separate character traits of the director; perceived beauty, competence, trustworthiness, likeability, and intelligence, which they had to infer from only one photograph. These anonymous raters did not know who the directors were, the results of their elections, or even what the research they were involved in was regarding.
Using these rankings, my colleagues and I then generated an average score for each of the five inferred character traits for each individual director. We then matched these average ratings to the ratio of voters who either abstained or voted against the director in their elections and re-elections.
Interestingly, our results actually offered a completely different opinion to what was previously generally believed when it comes to attractiveness in director elections. Our findings showed that the attractiveness of a candidate had absolutely no effect on the likeliness of being elected.
However, the perceived competence, trustworthiness, likability and intelligence, inferred by only a photograph all played a part in these corporate director elections, by having a profound effect on the decision of voters. In fact, we found that the directors who ranked highly on these four perceived characteristic traits received many more votes in their favour. Whilst, more specifically, an increase in these rankings by one standard deviation was equivalent to a decline in the likelihood of negative votes by an average of 26%.
However, even more interestingly, this effect was only apparent for male corporate director candidates. In fact, female candidates’ beauty, or their other inferred character traits, had absolutely no effect on the number of voters who either abstained or voted against them. Therefore, female corporate director candidates were neither advantaged or disadvantaged by their facial appearance in director elections.
So, why does facial appearance and perceived characteristics matter for men in these corporate director elections, but not women?
Well, there could be a number of reasons for this. The most likely one being the already short supply of top female directors at board level, which meant therefore that voters are actively looking to elect female directors in order to improve gender balance, instead of voting against them. Companies and shareholders are also starting to recognise the benefits of gender diversity at board level, and therefore employing a greater number of females to senior roles.
The research revealed that shareholders regard director traits, such as competence, trustworthiness, and intelligence, which are all needed in the position of director, as important for male candidates and that the director’s photograph helps to infer these character traits as proxies for the real traits. This clearly shows that a male corporate director’s physical appearance is just as important as their previous director results, education or professional careers. However, for females, it is much more likely they are going to experience little dissent from voters in these election campaigns, and their physical appearance has absolutely no effect on whether they are voted for or not.
I am Assistant Professor in Corporate Finance. Prior to joining emlyon business school, I was a Researcher at Tilburg University. I was also a visiting scholar at Oxford University and worked for an international consulting firm. I have published in the Journal of Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance: An International Review, the Journal of International Financial Markets, Institutions & Money, and others. My research interests are corporate finance, corporate governance, and executive compensation.
- Geiler P., Renneboog L. & Zhao Y. (2018). Beauty and appearance in corporate director elections. Journal of International Financial Markets, Institutions & Money, Forthcoming. DOI 10.1016/j.intfin.2018.03.004.
Read abstract online