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The COVID-19 pandemic will have had unintended consequences, outside the health sector, when moving to online courses. Indeed, it is recognized that “beauty” influences many areas of daily life, consciously or not. Recently, a researcher found that female students deemed “attractive” obtained, in the context of distance learning courses, lower marks for courses with significant teacher-student interaction. This study points to the problem of discrimination linked to beauty in the educational world, which would be much more important for women.
Physical attractiveness is important in many aspects of life. A wide range of publications acknowledge that beauty has an impact on a person’s success. For example, attractive people tend to get higher salaries and grades and are less likely to be convicted in court.
However, studies differ on whether this phenomenon is solely due to discrimination based on physical appearance or whether attractive individuals are more productive, as some studies have suggested.
Recently, COVID-19 has made it possible to test whether obtaining university degrees involves a difference due to physical discrimination or differences in productivity between people. Indeed, during the pandemic, Swedish universities, like those in other countries, transformed their face-to-face courses into online courses, from March 2020 to September 2021. During this period, teachers’ access to student faces was greatly reduced. , and therefore discrimination as well. The study, led by Adrien Mehic of Lund University, is published in the journal Economic Letters.
A robust study in a subjective framework
To study the influence of beauty, A. Mehic relied on data from five consecutive cohorts of the five-year industrial engineering program at Lund University, i.e. 300 students, 37% of whom were women. Of the teachers, just over two-thirds were men. The first cohort started the program in 2015 and the last in 2019. These data only take into account the marks of the first two years of the cycle which are compulsory.
In total, students follow 15 courses during these two years. The author differentiates between qualitative courses, where teachers interact with students, and quantitative courses, where teachers teach notions requiring very little interaction (mathematics and physics). For example, for marketing, supply chain management, and business administration courses, exams often take the form of group work and seminars. This involves a relatively high degree of teacher-student interaction. In mathematics courses, the written exam does not allow discrimination: either the answer is right or it is wrong, whether the student is handsome or not.
To assess the attractiveness of students, A. Mehic explains in a press release that he based himself on a panel of 74 people (aged 17 to 32) who did not know the students. They rated their photos using an increasing scale of 1 to 10, focusing on facial beauty. Since the number of students in the sample was relatively large, each person rated only half of the images, meaning that each face received an average of 37 ratings. The mean beauty was slightly less than 5, suggesting some distribution of ideally random (centered mean) “beauty” ratings, according to the Student Curve.
An anti-discrimination pandemic?
Before the pandemic, when classes were face-to-face, it appeared in the data that attractive students performed significantly better than others in qualitative classes. The results are valid for both boys and girls. However, there was no corresponding effect in the quantitative courses, which is likely due to the lower levels of teacher-student interaction in these courses, as mentioned earlier.
Subsequently, when teaching was done through online lectures, after the onset of the pandemic, the grades of attractive female students declined in qualitative courses. For the author, since the teachers could not easily see the faces of the students online, these results suggest that the difference in marks for attractive women is probably due to discrimination. The effect persists even after adjusting for teacher gender, implying that this result is not entirely driven by male teachers discriminating in favor of attractive female students.
Surprisingly, this discrimination based on beauty has persisted among men. In other words, students who were judged to be good-looking continued to get better grades in online classes. This fact could reveal, according to A. Mehic, that attractive men are more productive than others. However, further research is needed to establish a precise explanation.
However, according to the existing literature, it is recognized that attractive men are more hardworking and have more open social networks, and therefore a greater influence on others. These social skills have been linked to creativity in other studies. These traits linked to superior academic performance are likely to persist, regardless of the mode of teaching (face-to-face or distance learning).
Eventually, the pandemic revealed the extent of beauty-backed discrimination against women in academic fields, whereas for men, beauty would seem to be only a productive attribute, inducing better grades. However, this last point is outside the scope of the study and is only hypothetical.
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