Does Social Media Help or Hinder Women Job Seekers? It Depends

“Don’t post that on Facebook unless you want a future boss to see it!” So goes the wisdom, because by now, it is widely understood that a job candidate’s social media activity is apt to be accessed by hiring managers prior to a hiring decision. In “Drawing on Attributional Engineering to Unlock the Potential of Cybervetting to Combat Gender Discrimination in Hiring,” published in the June 2021 issue of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Culverhouse’s Dr. Maura Mills and Younsung Cho, along with Dr. Angela Grotto (Manhattan College) consider the nuanced – and sometimes less-than-intuitive – ways that cybervetting may affect gender bias in hiring.

Cybervetting, or the practice of researching potential job candidates via social media, can enable gender bias in hiring situations such that it disproportionately risks negatively affecting women and minority candidates. Mills and her colleagues, however, argue that in some situations, cybervetting may have the potential to reduce such gender bias in hiring processes.

The authors explain this nuance by drawing on attribution theory, which proposes that people seek to understand the relationship between causes and behavior by attributing behavior to either internal or external causes.

For instance, if I stub my toe, I could attribute it to an internal cause (I’m irretrievably clumsy) or an external cause (my child left a mess for me to trip over). Attributional augmenting suggests that when stimuli facilitating (“for”) and inhibiting (“against”) a behavior exist simultaneously, the facilitating causes are likely to take precedence. Imagine the case of a successful businesswoman, where professional success is the behavior. The “against” causes are external: various factors make it difficult for women to succeed professionally. However, knowledge of this reality can cause others to attribute the woman’s success to an internal “for” cause: maybe she just works harder. Such a determination may in turn be more likely to work for her than against her in the hiring process.

However, the authors further suggest that how this actually plays out in practice is also likely to differ depending on the type of social media the company accesses. For example, while cybervetting via Facebook may exacerbate the likelihood of biased decision-making, cybervetting via LinkedIn may harbor the potential to positively affect such judgments. If a job candidate shows characteristics that run contrary to gender stereotypes, LinkedIn can give the hiring manager a better understanding of the behavior in light of work-related accomplishments and context. If a female candidate shows a history of higher-level job roles or success in male-dominated industries, for instance, they may be more likely to be perceived positively. And these things may be especially true if the hiring manager is, themselves, female, and thus more likely to appreciate the nuanced realities of the external context.

“There’s good reason to believe that cybervetting can disproportionately harm women applicants, but the full picture is more nuanced than that. We hope our work encourages further consideration of the complex judgements involved in hiring decision-making, and a nuanced understanding of the context within which those judgments occur”, says Mills.

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