Beauty in the Classroom: Are Students Influenced by Professors’ Appearance?

  • by: Ya’arit Bokek-Cohen and Nitza Davidowitz

Ya’arit Bokek-Cohen, Ph.D., ( is marketing area coordinator and lecturer in the department of economics and business administration, Ariel University Center of Samaria in Ariel. Nitza Davidowitz, Ph.D., ( is Director of Academic Development and Evaluation Department, and lecturer in the department of behavioral science, Ariel University Center of Samaria in Ariel, Israel.

The effects of faculty’s beauty on teaching ratings in academic institutions have rarely been studied. The purpose of this study is to examine this effect, and to explore sex differences of the raters and the ratees. The physical attractiveness of fifty five professors was rated by their students and then correlated with their teaching ratings that were collected for the same course in the previous semester. The more attractive male professors received higher ratings, but only from female students. The more attractive female professors did not receive better ratings, neither from male nor from female students. The main conclusion of the study is that men in academy benefit from a ‘beauty premium’ while women do not. This ‘discrimination’ stems from the contradiction between two types of images: role images and gender images. Since beautiful people are perceived as more characteristic of their gender (i.e. a beautiful woman is perceived as more feminine and a man as more masculine), when the role image corresponds to the gender image, the ‘beauty effect’ benefits beautiful people. However, when there is a contradiction between them, as is the case with female professors, the beautiful person does not merit the ‘beauty premium’.


The effects of beauty in academic institutions have been studied very little, and most of the studies have examined the effects of students’ beauty on teachers’ evaluations of them. Rosenthal & Jacobson (1968) argued that teachers’ expectations influence children’s academic performance, and there is a pygmalion effect in classroom. Teachers tend to expect higher achievements from attractive students, and students fulfill these implicit expectations. Based on this assumption, Clifford & Walster (1973) examined whether children’s attractiveness can trigger such expectations. They found that the attractiveness of the pupils is positively correlated with the teachers’ evaluations of the pupils’ IQ, social relationships, parental attitudes toward school, and the expected period of time the child would remain in full-time education. Landy & Sigall (1974) asked male college students to evaluate an essay supposedly written by a female college student. A photograph of the essay writer was attached to each essay. One half of the students read a well written essay, whereas the other half read a poorly written one. While the physical attractiveness of the writer did influence the evaluations for the poor essay, it did not affect the good one. Landy & Sigall concluded that physical appearance not only affects the way in which others react to a person, it also affects the way in which they react to a person’s accomplishments.

The purpose of this study is to examine the effect of beauty in Israeli academy. We begin with a review of the main findings of studies on this issue, and then present our research hypotheses.

The effects of physical appearance in higher education system – a brief review of literature

Lombardi and Tocci (1979) found a positive relationship between a professor’s attractiveness and his warmth, sensitivity, ability to communicate, knowledge of subject matter and superiority. No interaction effect of the sex of the rater and that of ratee was found. Goebl and Cashen (1979) found that attractive teachers were seen as more friendly, better organized, and more likely to encourage students to interact. O’Reilly (1987) asked students to attend a lecture of an attractive or unattractive female ‘teacher’. Students were asked to evaluate her on a 10-item rating form, and to indicate their sex. Findings show that regardless of the sex of the student, the physical attractiveness of the teacher enhanced teaching evaluations. Naumann (1988) showed subjects videotapes of a female instructor – half of them watched an attractive one and half watched an unattractive one. He found no significant effect on ratings for physical attractiveness.

Romano & Bordieri (1989) also examined the effect of physical attractiveness of college professors on students’ impressions of them. They asked students to listen to a 15-min audiotape that described typical first-time experiences for college freshmen. As each student listened to the tape, he was shown a black and white facial photograph of an alleged college professor. They found that attractive professors and female professors received the highest teaching scores. The interaction of the sex of the professor and physical attractiveness was non-significant. Newsum (1990) also examined the effects of physical attractiveness on teacher performance evaluation. Data were collected from subjects after they had observed one of two simulated preobservation conference videotapes. In one of the videotaped conferences, an actress portrayed an attractive teacher, and in the other one, the actress was less attractive. The results show significant higher evaluations of the attractive ‘teacher.’ Feeley (2002) found significant relationships among instructor level of attractiveness and vocal clarity and dimensions as teaching effectiveness, affective learning and nonverbal immediacy. is one of the main sites that allow students to post anonymous ratings of college professors in the United States and Canada. Students rate professors on three dimensions: easiness, helpfulness, and clarity of teaching. In addition, students can rate attractiveness by assigning a “chili pepper” icon to indicate “hotness,” a concept generally understood as the physical attractiveness of the instructor. Felton, Mitchell and Stinson (2004) examined data of 3,190 professors from in order to determine if any relationship exists among perceived quality, easiness, and “hotness” scores. and found a medium level of correlation (0.30) between quality and sexiness. Kindred and Mohammed (2005) analyzed the assigned scores, and content analyzed the comments of a sample of 1,054 ratings from the web site. They found a medium correlation (0.34) between appearance and clarity.

Hamermesh and Parker (2005) examined the impact of instructors’ looks on their instructional. They found that measures of perceived beauty have a substantial, independent, positive impact on instructional ratings by undergraduate students. The impact of beauty on instructional ratings was statistically significant for both women and men, but was three times larger for male than for female faculty. Hamermesh and Parker discuss their findings and ask the question whether they mean that beauty itself makes instructors more productive in the classroom, or whether students are merely reacting to an irrelevant characteristic that differs among instructors. We assume that if the latter proposition is true, then we might expect this reaction to differ between female and male students. A comparison of female and male ratings of both instruction and beauty will allow us to find the answer to this question. Therefore we measured the beauty impact for female and male students separately.

Sussmuth (2006) followed the strategy of Hamermesh and Parker and examined whether perceived attractiveness of German university teachers was correlated with the ratings they received from students. He asked 50 students to assess the attractiveness of 50 teaching tenured and non-tenured staff members of a different German university. He found that the impact of a teacher’s looks on their average instructional ratings for the German sample was about half of the one found in the American University studied by Hamermesh and Parker.

Studying the Israeli university

These findings served as the basis for our study, whose goal is to examine whether the ‘beauty premium’ is also accepted in Israeli academy and, if so, whether there are differences between male instructors and female instructors in terms of the physical appearance effect. In formal terms, beauty or physical attractiveness are irrelevant to instructor’s performance, and standards for judging and evaluating faculty are supposedly objective and based on instructor’s pedagogical and research abilities.

With regard to gender differences in the beauty effect, we relied on the stereotypical gender image of women as unqualified or as less qualified than men for scientific research and creative work. This image is based on the widespread opinion that they have not been blessed with the necessary masculine characteristics such as rationality, abstraction, initiative, assertiveness and independence (Toren, 2005). Science, scientists and research have an imprint of masculinity, and this image is accepted by many women as well (Ekehammer, 1985). Gender images constitute a basis for various performance expectations directed at various people, and expectations affect evaluations of others as well as the quality of the individual’s performance (Toren, 2005). Women’s attractiveness enhances their perceived femininity, and femininity is supposedly incongruent with the skill, talent and the job requirements of high status and ‘masculine-type’ jobs.

Research Hypotheses

1. The positive relationship between physical attractiveness and teaching ratings of male instructors will be found to be stronger in the female students’ feedback than in that of the male students.

2. The positive relationship between physical attractiveness and teaching ratings of female instructors will be found to be stronger in the male students’ feedback than in that of the female students.

Measuring the Teaching Rating Variable

At the end of each semester, as at most Israeli colleges, faculty are required to give all students an opportunity to respond to a formal 8-item questionnaire, rating instructors and course on a 5-point Likert-scale. This questionnaire includes 8 items, 6 of which pertain to the instructor and 2 to the tutor and the physical conditions in the classroom. Of the 6 questions about the instructor, one question pertains to a general evaluation of the instructor, which we used as the main indication of the quality of the lecturer’s teaching. This study examines data for teachers of the college for four semesters, from spring 2005 through spring 2006.

Measuring the Physical Attractiveness Variable

To measure the variable of physical attractiveness, we used the consensus method, widely accepted by most researchers in the field (Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986). Researchers simply ask a number of judges to rate men and women’s looks. We asked students who responded to the questionnaire mentioned above to address one additional question: “To what degree is the instructor considered a good-looking person?” We treated mean beauty rankings of all raters as instructor’s physical attractiveness score.


We telephoned the instructors in order to ask their permission to add a question about their physical attractiveness to the rating form, using an alphabetical list of all the faculty members. Extremely diverse responses were obtained from the instructors who were asked to participate in the study, ranging from enthusiasm to indifference and immediate consent (generally among the male instructors). We also encountered responses of polite refusals, with explanations such as “I don’t think this is appropriate for the institution,” or vehement refusals, amazement and anger at the ostensibly ‘undignified’ subject of the study. One female instructor even tried to organize a petition for the cancellation and immediate termination of the study. It should be noted that the percentage of those who refused to participate was significantly higher among the women: out of the 58 female instructors that we approached, 18 refused (31%), whereas only (10%) of the 59 men that we approached refused. A number of instructors noted that the subject is inappropriate for an academic study.

In total, data was collected on 55 instructors, 35 of them male and 20 female. Of these, only 49 instructors (31 men and 18 women) had scores for the beauty evaluation in two feedback sessions that were conducted at different times. The age range of the male instructors was 31-70 and that of the female instructors was 29-75. The mean age of the male instructors was 47.97 (SD=11.81) and that of the women was 45.84 (SD=11.80).


The first study hypothesis: the findings provide empirical support for the first hypothesis that the relationship between male instructors’ teaching ratings and their beauty ratings among the female students would be greater than this relationship among the beauty ratings of the male students.

The second research hypothesis: the findings do not provide empirical support for the hypothesis that the relationship between the female instructors’ teaching ratings and their beauty ratings among the male students would be greater than this relationship among the female students.


The first research hypothesis claimed that the relationship between teaching ratings of male instructors and their beauty ratings done by female students would be stronger than this relationship among male students. The data provide empirical support for this hypothesis. This sex difference may stem from women’s self-perception of lacking expertise for judging beauty (Graziano, Jensen-Campbell, Shebilske and Lundgren, 1993). In her study, Assayag (1998) also found that the beauty effect is weakened when the rater’s gender was identical to that of the ratee. Assayag suggests the reason for it is jealousy between same sex persons. Another explanation of this is that all people are more attentive to the attractiveness of members of the opposite sex, and therefore the effect is weakened in the case of members of the same sex.

The second research hypothesis claimed that the relationship between teaching ratings of female instructors and their beauty ratings by male students would be stronger than this relationship among female students. The data do not provide empirical support for this hypothesis. This can be explained by the diminished importance that men attach to the physical attractiveness of women who are older than they are. Men are more sensitive to the physical attractiveness of women who are younger than they are, and virtually indifferent to the appearance of women who are older than they are. For precisely this reason, the first study hypothesis was corroborated: in accordance with the norms of older males, women respond to the physical attractiveness of older males and give higher ratings to attractive male instructors. Based on the average ages of the raters (men 27.60 and women 27.37) and the ratees (men 48 and women 46), it should be noted that a woman of 50 is considered a mother figure and possibly even a grandmother figure for young men.

It is possible that a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs; students expect attractive faculty to be warmer, more sensitive, available, knowledgeable, etc. Instructors unconsciously receive these expectations and act according to them. We nevertheless believe that if this self-fulfilling prophecy does occur, it occurs among both female and male faculty. Thus, this prophecy cannot explain why male but not female instructors benefited from the beauty effect.

The main conclusion of the study is that, similar to administrative and other professions, males in academy also benefit a ‘beauty premium’, while women do not. This ‘discrimination’ stems from the contradiction between two images – role images and gender images. As Gillen (1981) demonstrated, beautiful people are perceived as more characteristic of their sex, i.e., a beautiful woman is perceives as more feminine and a man as more masculine. When the role image corresponds to the gender image, one can expect the ‘beauty effect’ to benefit beautiful people. However, when such correspondence is absent, as is the case with female instructors, the beautiful person (and, in our case, the beautiful woman) does not merit the ‘beauty premium’.

Gillen (1981) suggested that attractiveness enhances gender characterizations, thus an attractive female professor is perceived to be more feminine and an attractive male professor is viewed to be more masculine than their less attractive colleagues. As mentioned in the introduction, scientific and academic abilities are stereotyped as masculine (Ekehammer, 1985; Toren, 2005). This is another reason why female instructors do not benefit the ‘beauty premium’. Attractive female instructors work at a masculinely sex-typed job, and their exaggerated feminine attributes are incongruent with those believed necessary for their job. Thus, it can be suggested that if an attractive female instructors receives high ratings, it is not because of their appearance, rather it is in spite of it!

We suggest conducting a similar study in additional cultures, in order to examine whether there are cross-cultural differences at the ‘sensitivity’ to beauty level. Similarly, a comparison should be made between the younger and older students, to see whether rater age constitutes a covariate for the beauty-teaching evaluation correlation. Yet another relevant question for future research is whether attractive male ratees would benefit the ‘beauty premium’ in feminine-typed jobs, e.g., kindergarten teachers, hospital nurses.

In summary, our study confirms findings of past studies on this issue, and sheds light on one variable that has not been addressed in previous studies, specifically the interaction between professor’s gender and student’s gender. We explain this interaction by confronting two images: gender stereotypes and role expectations. The combination of these concepts, aligned with sex differences of students in their tolerance to the discrepancy, provides insightful interpretation of the findings.


We are grateful to Prof. Dan Zakay, Prof. Noach Milgram, Prof. Yochanan Peres, Dr. Avital Laufer and Dr. Tali Lev for their valuable suggestions and comments.


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