A picture does (not) say a thousand words

“We would like to hire a woman for this leadership position, but they do not apply for this vacancy.” – Something like that HR managers are talking about their job advertisements for leadership positions. The discrepancy of the gender distribution among different occupational fields is well-known like in engineering, for example. Previous research has shown that job advertisements in male-dominated areas contain rather masculine characteristics as well as masculine traits, which discourage especially women to apply for certain positions (see BION March 2014). But why are women less attracted by leadership positions? Recent research argues that, besides the wording of the job advertisements, pictures play an important role for female reactions to job advertisements.

Role congruity theory is able to explain the effects of written requirements for a leadership position (Eagly & Karau, 2002). Women might perceive an incongruity between the required personal characteristics and their own characteristics for a leadership position (i.e., leadership motivation, self-confidence, assertiveness). This incongruity is the reason why women find leadership positions less attractive and rather apply for other positions which conform to their traditional gender role (Eagly, 1987).

Pictures are also able to influence the application behaviour of potential candidates via similar mechanisms. However, HR managers are often not aware of these adverse effects. This is surprising, given the high charges companies are paying when taking new pictures for advertising or recruiting purposes.

With regard to racial congruity, research has already shown that African Americans find job advertisements more attractive if a group of persons with diverse ethnicity is depicted rather than a homogenous group of Caucasians (Perkins et al., 2000). Racial congruity effects have also been supported by other researchers (e.g., Avery et al., 2004).

Bosak and Sczesny (2008) examined the influence of pictures with men and women in job advertisements on the subjective suitability of participants of both gender. The authors presented to the participants a job advertisement with three pictures of a woman, three pictures of a man, and three pictures of man and a woman. The authors used nine pictures to minimize third influences of physical appearance on participants’ perceptions.

Results confirm the well-known effects: women feel less attracted for a leadership position than men. Surprisingly, equally men and women felt least suitable for the leadership position if a man was depicted in the job advertisement. Conversely, they both felt most suitable for the position if both a man and a woman was depicted in the job advertisement. The same was true for the picture with only a woman, but the suitability ratings were marginally lower. Gender differences of the participants were not found for these effects.

One explanation for these effects is that pictures containing a man and a woman lower the perception of “masculinity” with regard to the specific leadership position. Moreover, men and women might recognize themselves when they see a picture of both sexes – then the required personal characteristics are subjectively more congruent with their own characteristics. In contrast, the picture of only a man might increase the perception of “masculinity” of a job advertisement, which impairs the subjective suitability of men and women. Furthermore, and contradicting to some speculations, the picture of only a woman does not necessarily influence the application behaviour of women, but also of men.

Without any doubt, job advertisements should be gender-blind and attract the best candidates for leadership positions. It is time to reconsider both the wording as well as the pictures in job advertisements and their pivotal role in influencing the job-pursuit intentions and application behaviour of candidates. It is generally accepted that the higher the congruity of both signals (picture and wording), the higher is the subjective suitability of female and male applicants. Without an unintentional self-selection of applicants, the likelihood increases that the best candidates will apply for a certain vacancy.