by Yasmin Parry
A study by the University of Sydney Business School has found that managers hiring staff in Sydney’s fashion retail stores consider physical appearance significantly more important than previous experience or qualifications.
The survey of almost 200 Sydney fashion stores has prompted its author, Professor Richard Hall, to question whether laws preventing appearance-based discrimination should be instated in New South Wales.
“It raises the issue as to whether people who may be very well equipped and very able to do the jobs are missing out because employers are simply hiring on the basis of looks and perceptions about personality,” he says.
The study reveals that 97 per cent of store managers say the right personality is important, while for 85 per cent the right appearance is very important. The right qualifications are ranked at just 44 per cent and previous experience 78 per cent.
Professor Hall says that while the results aren’t surprising, they do have worrying implications for young people entering the retail industry.
“It’s a problematic introduction to the labour market for many young workers if they’re missing out on those opportunities because they’re not sufficiently good looking,” he says.
Sarah Fox, manager of high-fashion clothing store Paul & Joe, in Paddington, Sydney, says she regards good looks as the most important consideration when hiring staff.
“People are going to walk into the store and see a garment on a person. They don’t want to see it on somebody who is obviously not making the garment look good. So managers do go for people who are going to look like girls in a catalogue or on runway,” she says.
Style, clothing and personality are also important to Ms Fox when choosing staff, but she says physical appearance often trumps those qualities.
“I wouldn’t employ a girl who was a size 14 or 16 because she wouldn’t fit the clothing. There’s no point having her in the store trying to sell something that she can’t wear herself,” Ms Fox says.
Victoria is one of the few states where physical appearance is included in equal opportunity law. In New South Wales, current laws only go so far as to prevent discrimination on the basis of such factors as race, sex, gender, age and disability.
Professor Hall says even if laws preventing appearance-based discrimination were instated in New South Wales, employers would probably not change their hiring patterns, but he says such laws would at least draw attention to the issue.
“Discrimination law might not always have a direct effect, but it certainly has an indirect effect in terms of raising the consciousness both of employers and job seekers around their rights and around employer obligations and responsibilities,” Professor Hall says.
Anya Prive worked as a retail assistant at luxury fashion store Gucci in Sydney’s Castlereagh Street, and she says she’d support new laws preventing discrimination based on appearance.
“It’s definitely a great idea. I know quite a few people who didn’t get retail jobs just because they didn’t fit a fashion ideal,” she says.
But retail worker Thea Manning, who was employed at David Jones in Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall for three years, says it’s the nature of the industry, and young workers should understand the type of job they’re getting into.
“If you want to work in fashion retail, you have to realise it is concerned with presenting an aesthetic to the community and if you don’t care for aesthetics at all, maybe you should be working somewhere else,” Ms Manning says.
The study, Aestheticising Retail Workers, is published in the journal Economic and Industrial Democracy.