The rise of the Erotocracy

Written for and first published here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/kirsty-styles/rise-of-erotocracy

Is the 21st century woman someone who doesn’t have to choose between a career and kids, but is doomed to spend hours in the gym so she can climb that ladder? While the UN celebrated the first International Day of the Girl, Kirsty Styles heard Catherine Hakim on the power of erotic capital

We all know that capitalism isn’t fair, but who knew that there is a hidden economic truth in lines like Kate Moss’s ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’? We aren’t all going to be supermodels, but it turns out that being slim and attractive can actually be good for your bank balance, whatever your profession.

Traditionally, we heard at a New Turn event held at University of London Union, your chances of success come from three sources: your economic capital, your human capital – what you know – and social capital – who you know. The speaker was Dr Catherine Hakim, who believes she has identified the missing fourth factor – erotic capital – a combination of physical and social attractiveness. The theory is that beautiful people naturally develop good presentation skills, and those who are warm and turn themselves out well are perceived as being more attractive than they otherwise would be.

Research by economist Daniel Hamermesh, Beauty Pays, found that using erotic capital can add 10 to 20 per cent more to your annual salary. “And you spend a lot of time in the labour market,” Hakim added. The bad news, as she sees it, is that even here there is a gender gap. Men make on average 17 per cent more from erotic capital, whereas women’s beauty premium gives them just 12 per cent extra. This, she feels, is the new area in sex discrimination.

Fortunately, unlike IQ, which is far the highest determinant of success and is 50 per cent inherited and 50 per cent learnt, Dr Hakim believes that only 25 per cent of your erotic capital depends on what you are born with. The rest is what you do with yourself.

While I was half reeling and half assuming these people must have shares in a beauty products company, I couldn’t help thinking that Hakim had a bit of a point. There is evidence, she said, that people react to those who are attractive in a more positive way. It is subliminal – people can’t stop themselves from doing it. Attractive people, Hakim believes, receive more support and cooperation, are given the benefit of the doubt, and are thought to be more honest.

Addressing a room of students, many of whom were rocking laid-back fashions of the 80s and 90s, mid-austerity throwbacks in high-waisted trousers, denim and not-quite-done hair, she said that erotic capital is equally as important as qualifications. “Not the sort of thing that universities tell you.” A lot of young people strive to be the best they can be on paper, why not try to radiate that in person? The reality is that if you look after yourself, are active and lively, and dress to impress, then you are more likely to feel good. And it shows.

An audience member asked, where does this leave meritocracy? “Meritocracy is terribly unjust and unfair, people get ahead purely because they’re clever, and have a few qualifications” she replied.
Hakim says her views have been misconstrued as ‘women should make more effort to look attractive’. “Dump the idea that beauty is superficial and skin deep,” she said. “That attitude has lead women to be more embarrassed, anxious or nervous about exploiting their erotic capital.”

Recruitment consultants could probably make a princely sum, according to Hakim’s research, if they vetted all of the CVs they receive via the medium of Google images.  As it is increasingly difficult to distinguish by qualifications alone, and IQ tests are unlikely to become part of many recruitment processes, this could already be used as a way to select interviewees.

Hakim cited Christine Lagarde, the first female EU economic minister and first female head of the IMF, as someone with lots of erotic capital. A former labour lawyer, Lagarde is not the economist-type usually chosen to lead the supranational organisation. Could the way she dresses, her slim physique and glamorous jewellery have tipped the scales towards her selection when she might not quite have fit the bill? Oxfam criticised her appointment for its lack of transparency.

I was reminded of a conversation with a friend who leads a team of mobile developers. He had to sack a new recruit because he swore at a client. He told me that techies get away with looking and acting a bit odd because people think they have ‘unknowable knowledge’ behind unkempt locks. They can get paid up to £80,000 per year. So perhaps there is a similar unbeauty premium at work in some industries?

What I was surprised to learn from Dr Catherine Hakim’s talk about her books and her newest release, The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs, and Erotic Power, was that all sociological studies use wealth as the key measure of success. She said: “I don’t think money will ever go out of fashion”. Am I the only one who feels like it already has?

If the financial benefits of being attractive outlined by Hamermesh and Hakim are to be believed, then surgery might seem like a good way to get richer, even though we know that beyond a certain level, money doesn’t make you any happier. Plastic surgeons and make-up peddlers play on our insecurities and people feel miserable that they can’t live up to the ideal. Tellingly, Hakim’s talk coincided with the UN’s first ever International Day of the Girl as well as the publication of a study that  revealed that hospital admissions for eating disorders in the UK were up 16 per cent year on year. 91 per cent of the people affected are women, and one in 10 is a 15-year-old girl.

The new labour market realities are actually that no amount of lipgloss or a good personality could see you easily make the leap from low to high earner. The pay ratio between bosses and their average employees has ballooned from 10:1 in the 1960s, to 200:1 today while graduate starting salaries are down 13 per cent over the past year. Young people are being priced out of jobs, education and the housing market.

There is a crisis of trust now in traditional political and economic institutions. People across the western world are increasingly turning, through belief or necessity, to alternative forms of interaction. Manuel Castells, renowned sociologist from the University of Southern California, sees the aftermath of the financial crisis playing out through fluid, even disorganized, networks. What is to come, he believes, could be the most drastic change since the feudal system collapsed. And if there is no profit motive, what then for erotic capital? Castells even notes that internet dating, the subject of Dr Hakim’s latest book, is a symptom of a world where we don’t have time to pursue the thing that will really make us happy – love.

At the individual level, it could pay to be a good person, get your 5-a-day and exercise, heck, even rock a dress if the situation calls for it. So the message I took away was, sure, keep an eye on your capital assets for now – but be prepared for something better.

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