Lately there’s been renewed media focus on the apparent lack of women in many tech jobs. (See this New York Times magazine piece, this Valleywag piece, and this Fast Company blog post for some examples — and beware that some language in posts and/or comments may be NSFW or offensive.) Equal opportunity within a field of employment is certainly an important topic, and there are no shortage of ideas for remedying the problem — including, as Catherine Rampell suggests in the Times magazine piece, writing more techie roles for women on TV.
What these articles really got me thinking about, though, was not just gender bias in tech, but what other biases might come into play when working to correct it. Specifically: are we biased towards people we find physically attractive? According to the literature, yes. We are.
In "The Effects of Physical Attractiveness on Job-Related Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Studies," published in Personnel Psychology, Vol 56, Issue 2 (June 2003), researchers Megumi Hosoda, Eugene F. Stone-Romero, and Gwen Coats reported on the effect that physical attractiveness had on several "job-related outcomes," including hiring. They studied this effect by analyzing 27 previously conducted studies from 1975 – 1999.
One of their hypotheses was that "Attractive individuals will be judged and treated more positively with regard to job-related outcomes than unattractive individuals." And indeed, their research upheld their conclusion, due largely to something called "implicit personality theory," which describes people's assumptions that certain traits and characteristics are linked together in a person. (For example, if you're shy, I'm also going to assume you like reading because those traits can often be found together in people.) Basically, they found that because being attractive generally has a positive stereotype attached to it, job–decision makers (like interviewers) judge attractive candidates more positively overall, and that the attractive candidates fare better because of it.
Interestingly, the study found that attractiveness was as important for male candidates as for females. The authors also found that the biasing effect of attractiveness seems to have decreased over time. So the study, while worrisome, does have some bright spots (or at least, spots that are equally dim for both genders).
Knowing that attractiveness bias definitely exists won't, by itself, help bring coding opportunities to more women. However, by knowing it exists we can use it as a check on our potentially damaging unconscious impulses, by forcing us to examine our decisions to make sure we're hiring for the right reasons — whether we're hiring a woman for a stereotypically "male" role, a man for a stereotypically "female" role, or anyone for any job at all.
If you're hiring online, and all you have to go on is a resume/profile and a headshot, how do you avoid your bias for attractive people and glean the most useful information to make a decision? That's exactly what we're figuring out.