Picture this

If you want to get ahead, get a head-shot–on a professional profile or a company website, your photo is not an optional extra. But why should women be obliged to put their faces on public display? It’s a recipe for sexism, says Debbie Cameron

Remember Charlotte Proudman? She’s the barrister who made headlines this year after a male lawyer commented on the ‘stunning’ photo that adorned her profile on the professional networking site LinkedIn. Her response was to shame him on social media, telling him that she didn’t appreciate being objectified in this way. The emphasis put on looks, she said, ‘silences women’s professional attributes as their physical appearance becomes the subject’.

Predictably, she was pilloried by the likes of the Daily Mail, which called her both ‘prim’ and a ‘feminazi’, but what Proudman was saying struck a chord with many women. For anyone old enough to remember the 1970s, it was déjà vu all over again, with men telling us that they were only being friendly and that most women enjoyed the attention (i.e., you feminists are just jealous), or plaintively asking what the world was coming to if a man couldn’t pay a gal a compliment without someone outing him as a lech on Twitter.

But there was one question nobody seemed to be asking. If a person’s physical appearance is irrelevant to the judgment of their professional attributes, why do people put photos on their LinkedIn profiles at all?

When I ask this question, I’m not trying to blame Charlotte Proudman for her own objectification. I’m not saying, ‘if she didn’t want men to fixate on her looks, all she had to do was not display her photo on her profile’. My point is the opposite: this is not really a free choice. And that’s one thing that makes 2015 different from 1970. In the age of the internet and the digital camera, it has come to be more or less taken for granted that your professional profile—whether on LinkedIn, on your company’s website, or on the announcement of the talk you’re giving next month at a conference on Facilities Management—will be accompanied by a picture of your face. If you don’t put a photo on it, your profile will look ‘unprofessional’ (LinkedIn profiles with photos get seven times more clicks than those without), and if you don’t agree to provide a photo on request you will be judged as eccentric, uncooperative and rude.

I know this because it happens to me all the time.

I am an academic: I belong to a professional community where in theory your looks could hardly matter less. (Male academics’ inattention to professional standards of dress and grooming is legendary: there’s even a popular website called Professor or Hobo, where the game is to guess whether you’re looking at a photo of an expert on string theory or a homeless person.) When I started my career, in the early 1980s, there was no demand whatever for photos of people like me. Photos were only for models and celebrities, not least because in those pre-digital days it required skill and fancy equipment to take a professional-quality photo, and you also had to send the film away to be developed.

Then, one day in the mid-1990s, a man knocked on the door of my office and announced he’d come to take my photo for a display of staff head-shots that was going to be put up on the departmental noticeboard. When I asked him why, he said it was a ‘customer care’ initiative to make the staff more accessible to students and visitors. ‘If there’s a picture of what you look like on the noticeboard they’ll know who you are’.

I pointed out that students already knew who their lecturers were: we were the ones on the podium in lectures, or in front of the whiteboard in classes. He said, ‘and what if someone wants to see you who isn’t in your class?’ I replied that a student in that position would probably do exactly what he’d just done: come to my office, and then proceed on the assumption that the person inside was the person whose name appeared ON THE DOOR.

But this snark got me nowhere: it was the first of many arguments on this subject I was destined to lose. Within a few years, the parade of staff mugshots on the departmental noticeboard had become the norm in every university. It’s a symbol of institutional approachability, and if you didn’t have one it would be like putting up a notice saying ‘in this department we’re remote, unfriendly bastards’.

Within a few more years, as the internet became the main medium for all kinds of communication, and digital images became ever simpler to produce and then reproduce, it also became the norm for people to expect photos with everything. Today, if I’ve been invited to speak at a conference, or visit a university abroad, or give a talk at my local bookshop, whoever’s doing the publicity will ask me not only for the traditional things (name, academic affiliation, title and brief description of my talk), but also for a picture of myself.

I have sometimes asked, ‘but why does it matter what I look like?’ Invariably, the answer I get is that of course the actual details of my appearance aren’t important, but being able to see my face makes it easier for people to relate to me. Or as one put it recently, ‘a picture makes you more relatable’. Being ‘relatable’ is now an obligation, a professional imperative if you want to be successful. And part of that imperative is to show your face.

You’re probably wondering why this bothers me so much. Am I hideously ugly? Exceptionally shy? No: and even if I were both, that wouldn’t be the point. My objection to the routine use of photos in professional contexts isn’t about the way it makes individual women feel. (Which is, of course, variable.) It’s a political objection: although it is rarely discussed as such, I think this is very much a feminist issue. It affects men and women differently, in ways that work to the disadvantage of women as a group.

It wouldn’t be true to say it doesn’t affect men at all. Everyone today has to pay attention to their self-presentation and ‘public image’. From the moment a teenager constructs her or his first Facebook profile, s/he’s engaged in the process of deliberate self-commodification for an audience with certain expectations. But while both sexes expect to be judged, and are liable to develop the kind of self-consciousness that entails, the standards are not the same for males and females, and nor are the consequences of failing to meet them.

I’ve mentioned Facebook, but Facebook isn’t really what I’m complaining about. On Facebook you can choose not to put your photo on your profile: many of my own friends use an image of something else entirely. You can also control who sees what you post. But in professional life, you don’t always have a choice, and you certainly don’t have the same control. I sometimes used to dodge the request for a photo by saying I didn’t have a suitable one; but what usually happened was that whoever it was just went off and found some random old photo on the web. If you’ve ever had an image of it publicly displayed, your face becomes a kind of permanent public property. And for women that can cause all sorts of problems.

The most obvious problem is the one Charlotte Proudman had: unwanted sexual attention in what’s supposed to be a professional context. Lest we forget, that’s the basic definition of sexual harassment. But because it’s happening at a distance, most often in the form of online verbal communications like comments on a woman’s profile or email sent to them directly, it’s rarely put in the same category as the classic form of workplace harassment where the harasser and the target work in close physical proximity.

Proudman’s experience was relatively mild: the unwanted attention didn’t escalate to explicit sexual propositions, or threats, or stalking. Those things do happen, though, and arguably they are more likely to happen if your profile displays your face than if it merely displays your CV. The trouble is that for women, being ‘relatable’ is often a euphemism for being sexually available. The question isn’t whether men can relate to your views on best practice in accountancy, it’s whether they’d like to relate to you in a more intimate way. If they think you’re attractive you’ll get comments, and if they don’t you may get comments of a different kind.

Judging by appearances is not just something harassers do. Research suggests we all do it. People who are ‘good looking’ by the prevailing standards of their culture get hired more easily, promoted more quickly and earn more than their less attractive peers. As a broad generalization this applies to both sexes, but if you look at research on the way career prospects are affected by specific aspects of appearance—in particular, whether you’re fat, skinny or average—it becomes clear that the effects are both different and more severe for women. Putting photos on everything makes this kind of bias worse, if only because it kicks in sooner than it might otherwise: if a picture is the first thing someone sees, that will colour their judgment of the stuff that’s actually relevant. Actually, there’s research suggesting that ‘colour their judgment’ is an understatement. According to one study,

recruiters spend 19% of their time on your online profile looking at your picture. Not as much time is spent on your skills or past work experience. Therefore, your picture plays a big role in whether you’re able to interest a recruiter enough to reach out to you.

The use of profile pictures also facilitates other kinds of discrimination, since a photo reveals not only a person’s sex, but also their race and their approximate age.

Advice on what constitutes a ‘good’ profile picture makes clear that the expectations are not gender-neutral. Men are told to present themselves in a suitably professional way. This will probably involve tidying whatever hair they’ve got on their head, shaving (or trimming their facial hair) and wearing a collar and tie. For women it’s more complicated. You’re expected to be ‘well-groomed’, which means, in the words of one site, ‘appropriate make-up and jewellery’, and you must combine looking professional with not looking ‘unapproachable’ (severe, bossy, intimidating). These demands mean you have to pay attention not only to what you wear, but to every nuance of your posture and facial expression. Should you smile or look serious? What kind of pose, or gaze, will make you look approachable but not too girly? And of course, you worry that whatever you decide, you’ll be judged and found wanting. Because you’re a woman, and that means everyone feels entitled to judge the way you look.

Once I was interviewed for a Sunday newspaper, and they sent a professional photographer to take some pictures. His most ‘successful’ shot showed me in profile; he explained that in his expert opinion a standard full-face shot would not flatter me. At the time, I didn’t resent him telling me that: I figured it was his job to make those judgments. But later, I wondered: would he have said the same if I’d been a man? In that case I think he’d probably have taken the full-face picture, because he wouldn’t have cared so much about whether the shot was ‘flattering’. You can show a man the way he is: you can look for the individual personality in his face. With a woman, though, it’s assumed that what you should do is make her look more conventionally attractive, which may also mean less individual. It’s also assumed that she will want that.

I do resent it when I get random blokes on Twitter telling me how ugly I look in my profile photo. Or advising me, as one once did, that I should cut my fringe and use better hair products. I think: what’s it to them? They don’t know me personally; Twitter isn’t a dating site, and I haven’t made my appearance the subject of a poll. Yet they seem to take what they see as its shortcomings very personally. As if my lack of attention to what they consider proper standards of grooming were a calculated insult that they can’t allow to pass.

The photo I use on Twitter is a drastically cropped version of an ineptly-taken selfie, and I don’t use it for professional purposes: since it doesn’t show me looking ‘professional’, it isn’t suitable for putting on a poster or a university website. The photo that does appear on my department’s website is less casual, but so out of date, you could probably sue it for false advertising. And as I write that, I realise it’s not just a figure of speech: in professional and public contexts, these endless head-shots basically are a form of advertising, with you as the product.

In the final analysis, I think that’s what bothers me most—not just that I’m expected to sell myself, but that I’m expected to do it in the way women always have, by using my looks. And however women look, there’s a price to pay for that: a ‘stunning’ photo will get you objectified, while a not-so-stunning photo will get you sneered at. No photo at all will get you a rep for being snotty, or out of touch with the self-promotional demands of the 21st century world.

Meanwhile, men who look like the ones on ‘Hobo or Professor’ just upload their warts-and-all images and then forget it. They know they have more important things to advertise; we are constantly reminded that we don’t.