Is social media driving gender discrimination?

23 February 2016 -


New research reveals recruiters judge female applicants on looks rather than content when appraising social media profiles

Jermaine Haughton


The growth in the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and other social media accounts has seen many hiring managers use the platforms as part of their recruitment drive, accessing candidates online profiles and making judgements on them before even meeting face-to-face.

While this may provide extra background on a candidate, it can also exacerbate negative gender bias against female job applicants.

According to findings by University of the West of Scotland researchers, managers who choose to snoop on applicants’ social media profiles, particularly Facebook, are likely to enforce certain biases against female candidates, particularly their physical appearance, potentially distracting from the quality of their application and distorting the true suitability for job roles.

When analysing the eye movement of a group of 70 men and women, who were told to review a selection of Facebook profiles and to judge each person as a potential candidate for a job, the research team found that both male and female participants judged the female candidates primarily on the basis of their appearance, while they tended to form an opinion about the male candidates based on the content on their profile page.

Participants were found to focus on the nature of a male applicant’s comments and name, rather than on their profile picture. Contrastingly, viewers of female job applicants on Facebook seem to attribute little value to the material posted, and placed a much greater focus on how the woman looked in her profile picture.

“When it comes to assessing female candidates, there is a lot of reliance on photographs to judge the qualities of the candidate – this is true regardless of whether it’s a man or a woman reviewing the profile,” said psychology lecturer Graham Scott, who helped conduct the study.

“Name is looked at first, then images. Finally, recent posts and friends are looked at. When it comes to assessing a male candidate, both men and women focus on name, profile information, recent posts, and friends.”

The study’s researchers proposed that the results may occur because abilities are perceived to be associated with physical appearance in women more so than in men.

The report stated: “since women are often thought to value and promote their appearance more than men, that physical attractiveness will be associated with competence and other qualities desirable in an employee in women, but that with men indicators of similar skills must be sought from other areas of the timeline.”

But with 40% of recruiters using social media to find and verify new staff, and one third of managers admitting that they plan to increase investment in recruiting via social media in the next 12 months, according to research from recruiting software company Jobvite, the findings from Dr Scott’s study reveal troubling gender discrimination, and uncertainty over the ethical nature of recruiting via social media.

Facebook remains the favourite social media network for recruiters, with 75% suggesting it as the most popular platform for candidate selection, followed by Twitter (57%) and LinkedIn (38%).

Critics of social media snooping argue that the process should not be relied upon by bosses to verify candidates, as most of the information accessed is largely irrelevant to the job, employers may get offended by material taken out-of-context and it may reinforce individual prejudices.

In fact, 61% of hiring managers admit they are likely to reconsider a hiring decision based on the candidate’s social media profile.

Published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, Dr Scott said the research could have significant ramifications for people entering the jobs market.

“There is greater reliance than ever before on social media, both as a prospective candidate and as an employer – so many people have degrees now it can be difficult to differentiate between candidates,” he said. “Having a strong profile and content could be the difference between getting a job and not even being invited for an interview.”

The study provides further evidence to the protests of many feminist campaigners who claim that, added to the challenges of lower pay and incidents of harassment, women are often turned down for new jobs, promotions or opportunities due to their physical looks and how they dress, rather than their work record or abilities.

In particular some female workers were refused opportunities because they were deemed “too beautiful”, a 2010 study by Stefanie Johnson, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado, found. This was often the case when women were applying for ‘masculine’ roles.

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