hiring · sexist fail · skeptical feminist

Attachments: Letters of reference, CV, teaching philosophy…and a headshot

Periodically we’ve been thinking here about appearance in/and The Profession. And today is December 6th, a day that, as Nicole Brossard says elsewhere, is among the centuries. A day that in Canada is for remembering violence against women, remembering women who were killed simply for being women. Violence against women–all women–should be in the forefront of national concern, though as one of our commenters noted, “The most terrible and egregious act of sexism this month was the Harper government’s decision regarding the ‘renewal’ of funding for Sisters in Spirit, a Native Women’s Association of Canada initiative that has documented 582 missing and murdered aboriginal women and is developing policy recommendations on [how to deal with and stop] violence against aboriginal women. In true Harper style, the feds reduced funding by one third for the next five years and made ‘renewal’ subject to the following conditions: that the initiative be called Evidence in Action; that their well recognized Grandmother Moon logo not be used; that they cease doing ‘research’ on the missing and murdered women (to focus on ‘action’); and that they not maintain their database.”

I found myself thinking too about Polytechnique. I was ten years old on 6 December 1989 when a man with a gun walked into Montréal ’s L’École Polytechnique. He entered a classroom, demanded that the men go on one side and the women on the other. He told the men to leave the room, and they went. He called the women “une gang de féminists” and then he shot. Fourteen women were killed. I remember sitting on the living room floor in my parents’ house in Ottawa, reading the newspaper and feeling scared. It was night time; I was at home alone. My parents had just started letting me stay home without a babysitter; I was responsible and I liked having space to myself. But sitting on the living room floor on the new blue carpet I was scared. How far away was Montréal? Was this man really dead? Or had he come to Ottawa? I closed all of the curtains, sat in a corner and read and reread the reports. One of the policemen who came to the school found his daughter murdered. One male student said that when he saw the corpse of a woman in the photocopy room he thought it was a sick practical joke. Since when was a dead woman a joke? The sadistic violence acted out on these women was, I think now, the first time I truly recognized that I was a woman. It was, certainly, the first time I realized that women were sought out as victims based solely on their gender, though I do not imagine I had those words at the time. Alone in my parents’ house that night I just had my fear and a heavy sense of isolation.

With gendered and raced identity at the forefront of my mind, naturally I thought of this discursive space when, while catching up on my blog reading this weekend, I came across an article from the New York Times. Called “Beauty Discrimination During a Job Search” the article considers research from social scientists that suggests looks have something to do with whether or not you get a second interview. Here is a wee excerpt:

How much do looks matter during a job search? A new study suggests that while handsome men do better while looking for work, good looks can end up hurting a woman’s chances of scoring a job interview.

The gist of the research is that looking good is fine if you’re a man and bad (read: threatening) if you’re a woman.

After feeling whipsawed by the predictability of this article (and the more predictable commentary) I found myself thinking about how you readers would respond to this article. I also found myself thinking about my students.

I’ve just finished teaching a contemporary critical theory course. We spent the semester thinking about norms: gender, race, class, ethnicity, language, form. In short we engaged in consciousness-raising in a classroom. When these students were faced with a stunningly devastating binary they fought it. Fought to understand it, fought to unpack it, fought to think through alternative ways of being in the world that might upend extant inequities.

Did we get very far? In certain ways, no: we covered a huge amount of material in a semester. They may not all remember the difference of differ
ance, but some of them will. More of them might think about Peggy Phelan‘s work of the politics of visibility or Benedict Anderson‘s imagined communities.

I chose to organize the course in a rhizomatic structure. Modules, if you prefer. I was fascinated to find that when we reached the module on gender and sexuality–and read (among many others)
Rich, Cixous, and Mohanty. The students almost invariably gravitated to/were interested in Mohanty’s article on feminist scholarship and (post-) colonial discourse, while they found both Cixous and Rich prescriptive. Mainly, the concern was that the texts by Rich and Cixous showed their age. They weren’t prepared to say that there was no such thing as gender inequity, but they were resistant to the notion that it was so blatant, boring, and obvious.

So I find myself wondering what they would make of this article which, as it states, is based on social science research (you can link to the scholarly article informing the NYT one here).

And I find myself wondering what to make of it as well. Like my fellow blogger(s), I certainly think about my professor-y appearance. But this seems even more complicated than that. Certainly I’m not in a profession that is in the practice of asking for photographs to accompany applications (yet) but that seems beside the point. What does this say about “progress” for women gendered or made? What does it say about striving for ethnic and racial diversity?

Here’s (a teeny tiny top three list of ) what concerns me:
-what counts at “good looking” seems thinly veiled. This means ‘classic good looks,’ right? Which means heteronormative at the very least. And that, friends, is hugely problematic.
-as one commenter states, it seems that in any version of this scenario women are the most disenfranchised by this trend. This echoes my first concern: Are these women who look like, pass as, or choose to identify as women? Probably the former.
-in an attempt to “eliminate potential racial bias, the judges selected photos of individuals who appear to have a more ambiguous ethnic background.” So if you look too anything you’re out of luck? Wow.

What do you think readers?

7 thoughts on “Attachments: Letters of reference, CV, teaching philosophy…and a headshot

  1. We have been looking at Affirmative Action in my Contemporary Moral Problems class….and we touched on hiring practices like this one.

    A friend of mine suggested that hiring processes should eliminate any suggestion of gender, race, etc out of the equation by doing blind hiring. Not even a name on the resume, interviews conducted without a recognizable voice on either end, etc.


    I have questions about this idea of attractiveness and hiring.

    Can we assume that most of those doing the hiring are upper middle class to upper class white males in their late 40's to mid 50's? Or is it the woman they have in human resources?

    If we can assume that the upper middle class+ men are doing the hiring, then would it be safe to also assume that even if the woman is equal or more qualified than another woman who is “whatever less attractive can be considered”, then she won't get a job there because she is at higher risk for being subjected to harassment?

    If it's the woman in H.R. are we to assume that hiring based on attractiveness now has more to do with some sort of jealousy when it comes to a deep down desire to compete with other women for men?(im being sarcastic here, not suggesting this is actually a viable type situation) Since this seems to be the only obvious reason one woman wouldn't hire another woman who is “whatever more attractive is”.

    I am not surprised that the standard for good looking is hetero-normative when considering the likeliness of the person hiring. Not surprised, but still disturbed. As we are unsure about who actually does the hiring though, it is almost terrifying to think about the reasons why this “attractiveness” is really a factor.

    Also I wonder, if some sort of beauty standard was set up, would it be our job as women to alter our identity performances, and our physical appearance enough to be seen as “the right amount of attractive” when going to a job interview?

    Or, and this seems much more likely, it's about time that there was some actual change in the model of the workplace. Since regardless of who is more pretty and why, the fact that how attractive someone is, has nothing to do with their skill set for the job they are applying for. (in particular jobs that are not dependent on certain physical characteristics when it comes to hiring, eg//model, exotic dancer, etc. Although I might argue that hiring on looks for even these jobs is a type of sexual stereotyping, and points to deeper problems in the world).


  2. We have to keep in mind though that this study was only concerned with getting call-backs for interviews, not actual hiring. So we don't know what happens to all these categories of people after they actually get the interview. I think that would be a much more complex issue because to physical looks you are also adding the candidates behaviour to the equation. So it's not really fair to be talking about 50+ year old white males and the effect they have on attractive women getting jobs. The study was not concerned with that so let's not make these assumptions.

    It is also important to keep in mind that the research discovered a certain “type” of person responsible for sorting resumes in companies. Whatever that implies would probably need a slew of other studies to figure out. And I don't believe the article actually offers any interpretation about that. It only gives the facts. So probably should be making assumptions about that either.

    Finally, the study also noted that when resumes were sent to hiring agencies, applications from women seemed to all be treated the same way, whether there was a photo or not, whether she was attractive or not. So, it seems that in an environment built around hiring, where it is not just one person sifting through resumes, the treatment is different and more professional. Again, it would probably take more studies to really deal with these differences.

    Let's not make assumptions too hastily and let this sort of study get us down! The last thing I would want to see is women trying to make themselves “uglier” for interviews. It seems the issues are more complex here.


  3. Also in response to this particular point from Erin's article: “-in an attempt to “eliminate potential racial bias, the judges selected photos of individuals who appear to have a more ambiguous ethnic background.” So if you look too anything you're out of luck? Wow.”

    Again, I think we can be too quick to make assumptions. I believe that the reason that they chose to do this for this particular study is to eliminate the effects of POSSIBLE racism on a study that dealt with “attractiveness.” It's another variable to control to separate out what you are actually measuring. Possible effects of race on getting call-backs would be another study. I don't think we should immediately jump to the conclusion that “if you look too anything you're out of luck.”


  4. Thank you Erin for this thoughtful post on this of all days. It also comes the day after I had an intriguing phone conversation with a friend of mine who is preparing for her doctoral defense at UBC next week. Her dissertation is on feminism and chicklit. This friend has “classic good looks” (in, yes, the very traditional and heteronormative sense of the word; she has flawless skin, blue eyes, and blond hair, and I, for one, will not judge her simply because she is, in a word, pretty), and in one of her student evaluations she received the following comment: “X should not be a women's study professor, English, maybe, but not women's studies.” I leave it to you to unpack what the student's assumptions are about what a “women's studies” professor should look like (versus, say, a lowly English one). It seems to me that it gets to this whole discussion about appearance, identity, performativity, and what it means to be a woman.

    Here's another anecdote that isn't about gender and appearance, but rather ethnic/racial identity: One of my friends completed his MBA at the Ivey school of business and my sister and brother-in-law did theirs at MIT. All of these top-ranked business programs gave the same advice about naming: avoid having names that are unpronounceable or “too ethnic” in applying for jobs.

    Here's another one, my partner and I recently bought a house (!!!), and our new neighbour happily told us that “oh, one of the other couples here is also mixed race, like you.” He seriously called us a “mixed race” couple in 2010. Seriously. And he just retired from the Canadian federal government.

    I tell all three of these little anecdotes to indicate that all of the things that we as academics take for granted as common knowledge (like the constructed nature of identity, the aspiration towards equity etc.) are simply not common at all beyond the hallowed halls of academe. So what do we do?


  5. (you know you wrote too much when you have to break your comment in two parts)

    Lindsey, thank you for contributing those anecdotes. They are indeed interesting to ponder. But I want to ask again, are you sure you are not making a lot of assumptions about people and their beliefs based on very little evidence? The student who said that you friend should not be a women's studies professor, did he/she explain why? Could it be something about the way your fried teaches women's studies? Maybe she uses a lot of examples from literature? I feel like there may be many reasons for this comment and that we would be jumping to conclusions if we immediately attribute it to her looks.

    And very foreign names are very difficult to learn and pronounce. As we get more and more exposure to them, they might become more commonplace. But have you thought of what would happen if you moved to Asia with your western name? The letter “L” often gets confused with “R” in some Asian countries. I’d imagine your name could pose some problems. You might find it helpful to take up a more local sounding name at some point because you’ll get tired of people mispronouncing yours all the time. I am from a Ukrainian family. My sister and I happen to have very easy, international sort of names. My mother ended up changing hers to Jane because her full first name was too long and confusing and the short form contained a certain letter that doesn’t exist in English and is therefore very difficult for English speakers to say properly. She didn’t really feel sad about changing her name. She didn’t spend too much time thinking about it. It was just a practicality that made her life easier, a part of adapting to a new culture she chose to make her own. Have you ever asked people from other cultures who have changed their name why they did it and how they feel about it? Or are you just making assumptions based on your own set of beliefs?

    As far as interracial couples go, we do still live in a society where we don’t see that as often as same-race couples. So for better or worse, people do notice it. I notice it all the time. But it doesn’t mean I notice it in a negative sort of way. I’d say it’s more curiosity than anything else. Your neighbour pointing out to you that there is another interracial couple in the neighbourhood might just be way of grasping at some “common” thread when meeting someone new. Did you ask him why he would say that? You just made an assumption.


  6. As a Ukrainian, I get this sort of thing all the time. When I move to a new place and start meeting people, someone will inevitably ask me if I’ve met so and so who is Ukrainian. They are looking for a way to get conversation going and you could say also showing concern. Some immigrants, especially recent ones, are really happy to find someone of their own culture to talk to in their own language. So when people point out other Ukrainian people to me, they might be subconsciously thinking of that. Just because to me this doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t mean I should be offended by the suggestion and accuse them of thinking that every Ukrainian is alike or something of the sort. If we were in Ukraine, I would probably point out English speakers to other English speakers too. And I’m not making this comparison because I think interracial couples are from a different culture as a unit and would automatically have lots in common with another interracial couple. Yes, it’s sort of a silly assumption. I’m just saying that this sort of behaviour is not necessarily coming from a place of racism and intolerance. Your neighbour might still be working through the concept of interracial couples because he is not used to seeing it, but it doesn’t mean he thinks it’s a bad thing just because he notices.

    I think academics sometimes assign too much significance to small things because we spend so much time thinking about the issues involved. We find the issue everywhere we look and while criticizing “lay” people for making assumptions that have negative repercussions, we make the same sort of assumptions too and assign behavior patterns to people without really getting to know them.


  7. Thanks Anna for your comments, especially the Ukrainian examples because Ukrainian Canadian-ness is, in fact, my area of research!

    I think, however, that you missed my point about what you term “interracial couples,” my point was that the neighbour (cute and well-meaning, no doubt) said “mixed race.” He might as well have referred to my husband as “coloured.” My point is that terminology is something that we should be thoughtful about; racialization is a process not a biological fact; and the ways in which identities are talked about are things that we should think carefully about. I think that many of us do that; I fear, however, that many of us do not.

    My critique is not one that pits academics against “lay” people, but rather that there is a lot of good work being done within academia, and I fear that this good work is not disseminated into the public at large.

    Anyway, thanks for your comments! З Різдвом Христовим


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