Skip to main content

Why I chose left

    A few weeks ago, on March 1, 2019, I wrote a seemingly innocuous post on Facebook seeking my network’s opinions regarding my most recent professional photos.  Specifically, I wrote: “Time to pick my new work profile pic! What looks more “professorial” - left or right?   The two photos are reproduced below.
    Little did I know that this post would generate the greatest number of non-birthday comments ever (87!).  On Instagram, the same post got 25 comments. Without even realizing it, I was conducting a survey experiment.  The photo on the left displayed only a hint of a smile, chin up, and head slightly tilted to the right. The one on the right had me smiling a toothy smile, chin down, and head tilted left.  Otherwise, the pictures were identical, down to the arm fold, slightly unruly hair, and outfit.  (The only give-away that I didn’t originally plan this as an experiment was the fact that the two pictures were cropped differently, with the one on the left more zoomed in, so that less of my body was visible.)
     So, which photo got more votes?  Well, first of all, not all the comments gave a vote, and some people liked the two equally. From the sub-sample of posts with a clear vote, interestingly, the left and the right got equal number of votes, both on FB and Insta.  But there were some interesting sub-patterns.  Most notably, out of the 21 votes for left (“serious”), 18 were either by Wellesley College alumnae/colleagues or by my Economist colleagues.  On the other hand, my friends from outside academia/Wellesley mostly voted for right (“smiling”).
     Since the post “aired,” I’ve been casually asking friends, who are not typically on social media and therefore missed my original post, to describe what they thought of each of the photos separately, so as to not influence their opinions on one by the presence of the other.  Left was most commonly described as confident, assertive, exuding leadership qualities, competent, smart, and bada$$.  Right was most commonly described as pretty, approachable, nice, and warm. When I asked friends to consider them at the same time, similar patterns emerged with an additional observation that the right looks younger.
     The above descriptions might already reveal the primary reason why I picked the left one for my professional profile (despite the temptation to look "young"!)  But there is more.  In my own research with Katie Coffman, we show that certain attributes are associated with gender stereotypes which have repercussions for labor market outcomes. For example, we show that women are stereotyped to be warmer and less competent than men, which leads them to be held back when it comes to promotion to leadership roles.  In other words, there seems to be a trade-off between likability and competency.
     But what about all that talk about how likability and success go hand in hand?  If you think about it, you will see no contradiction.  When women act against their gender stereotype of being warm and obliging, acting assertively and seriously, they tend to experience backlash.  In other words, a nice warm woman is less threatening than a tough assertive woman and is therefore more likely to achieve success, even if the nice warm woman is perceived as less able.  I choose left to stand in solidarity against this trend.
     I will end with a follow-up experiment that someone (I?) should do (has this been done before? I couldn’t find it).  I would love to see the reaction to a similar comparison of two professional photos of a man – one serious and one smiling.  My guess is that most people would vote for the guy’s serious picture for his professional profile.  This just once again would prove that women are expected to smile, look friendly and pretty, and these “female” traits tend to be rewarded. 
     Ultimately, I have tenure, so I can do whatever I want. J

Popular posts from this blog

Facing the challenges of everyday life, Part 2

Fall of 2017: my closet is out of control.  Bursting at the seams with hardly ever-worn party dresses, jackets, and jumpsuits, it still manages to be completely devoid of options.  How is this possible, I muse, digging through the racks, laden with hangers, each carrying two or more items. Among the multitude of impulse buys and total duds, I locate that 15-year-old black jacket, two sizes too big and 20 dry cleans past its prime.  I wear it with a belt, and it looks ok.      Fast-forward one year: I no longer fall for impulse buys, and I almost never dry clean anything! Thank you, unlimited membership at Rent the Runway.   In a nutshell, I rent clothes, keep the four items I pick as long as I want to, and then return (no dry-cleaning required!).  As soon as the returns arrive back at the distribution center, I can pick my next items (conveniently "hearted" in the app).  First, this is a perfect mental replacement for shopping (hello, commitment device!).  I no longer go for …

Redefine “Promotable”

I only wrote one post in 2019.  It was not for lack of inspiration or important topics, but rather because writing op-eds is a “non-promotable” task for me. Other examples include serving on a committee, speaking on a panel, and talking to the press about research. So what is “promotable,” you might ask?For an economics professor, it’s research. Actually, not so much the research itself, but publishing said research. (Somewhat tangential, here is a piece on bias in publication in economics and how it relates to promotions.) At some institutions, teaching counts too, as long as you aren’t doing it “too well” or too much, so as to not get pigeon-holed as “teaching faculty.” In the world outside of academia, non-promotable tasks may include things like organizing a social event for the firm or serving on a committee.Broadly defined, these are tasks that benefit the organization but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement.It turns out, women are …