Should we ban discrimination based on how a person looks? Judging others on their appearance may be human nature, but if stereotypes about “blonde bimbos” and “fat slobs” influence decisions in job interviews, estate agencies or DWP offices, the law should step in to play a protective role. Appearance-based discrimination, or “lookism”, is already a legal matter in some areas of the United States and Australia. In 2012, an All Party Parliamentary Group headed by Jo Swinson MP called for research into the scale of appearance-based discrimination in the United Kingdom. This project will respond to that call and start the national debate on lookism in Scotland and the UK.
Working with stakeholders in government and industry, the project will begin by establishing to what extent appearance is already protected by the Equality Act 2010. When Riam Dean was told her prosthetic arm did not fit with the company “look” at the Abercrombie & Fitch store in London, she took her case to the employment tribunal on the ground of disability discrimination. Sex discrimination claims have been successfully made by male employees forced to wear ties and keep their hair short when female employees were not subject to the same requirements. Aspects of appearance related to race or religion could probably be protected in a similar way.
However, height, weight and “beauty” will not easily find a place in the current framework. The project will investigate attempts to incorporate lookism into equality law in other jurisdictions, exploring whether it is possible to define “appearance” in a meaningful way. It will ask if legislation is a necessary step and consider whether there are better ways of achieving the desired result.
The results of the project will create a theoretical platform from which to launch a follow-on investigation into the effects of lookism in practice. Working with an interdisciplinary team including evolutionary psychologists and behavioural economists, the follow-on study will create a robust evidence base for recommendations for changes in law, policy and practice.
This project is lead by Dr Frankie McCarthy.