Can LinkedIn do more to help women returning to the workforce?

This morning, at a program for women returning to work after a long break, a representative from LinkedIn talked about the importance of having a LinkedIn profile and instructed attendees on how to create and optimize one.

The audience was extremely receptive but as the speaker was going through the steps to build a profile, it was clear that LinkedIn’s current structure created a conflict for some of these women. The challenge, which was reflected in the numerous questions about the different parts of the profile, focused on how to optimize the profile to appeal to recruiters and overcome their biases for age and gender without omitting too much of what returners are passionate about and without lying. The questions focused on everything from how a profile photo dates candidates to whether to omit graduation dates and even positions held to appear younger.

The tone in the room was positive, with a reassurance that women returning to the workforce do bring necessary skills to the table. There are companies that appreciate those so-called “soft skills” that appreciate the maturity and experience returners can bring to a role. The rich variety of strengths and wisdom that they have gained outside the workforce, in volunteer positions, parenthood, and caring for sick family members, are an advantage. Research has shown that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially.

LinkedIn's profile advice: first step is a photo. Source: LinkedIn

LinkedIn’s profile advice: start with a photo.
Source: LinkedIn

Yet even though companies, and by extension recruiters, may be interested in skills that returners have, LinkedIn is really focused on the more traditional, climb-up-the-ladder career. LinkedIn isn’t about soft skills, or on how caregivers juggled multiple responsibilities that weren’t professional. LinkedIn is about a single career path, and not a windy road. This difference between what the women in the room needed and what LinkedIn, as a product, offered was obvious throughout the talk.

The two biggest product differences between what the LinkedIn profile offered and what the women in the room need were:

  • Functional vs chronological format. This was a big obstacle to many women. Consider the advice LinkedIn gives users to create a complete profile: “An up-to-date current position (with a description) and two past positions.” This is easy for someone currently working and that has been working for the past few years. This is challenging for returners because most often there is a gap that they have to fill with some creative twists such as self-owned consulting companies and exaggerating minor positions.Yet, a solution exists: the functional resume, that allows job-seekers to present their experience in a better light. LinkedIn could offer seekers different profile formats and allow them to choose which they wanted to use.
  • Multiple objectives. Several women stated that they would like to target multiple fields and positions yet LinkedIn allows users to present one face to the world. The analogy is a detailed cover letter that job seekers would tailor to specific positions, that highlights relevant skills. This request came up mostly when discussing the headline and summary. This could be solved if LinkedIn could allow users to pick what summary/headline to show for specific queries and job titles by recruiters.

Two other minor issues were brought up:

  • LinkedIn really spotlights companies worked at, and recruiters can even search for experience at larger, well-known corporations. Many women who have taken a career break do not necessarily have that on their resume, sometimes because they have been out of the workforce longer than these companies have been industry giants.
  • Volunteer experiences and causes are not part of the timeline and are tacked on at the end of the profile and seems like an afterthought.

Perhaps some effort can be done on the side of recruiter search tools. As part of the talk, we got to see what they can filter for, mostly based on experience. Yet, if there is an industry demand for certain soft skills, perhaps it is time to allow filtering for them? One thing I did like is that for experience, the current threshold is “over 10 years.” Many returners have way more than that in terms of experience but this option will bring up their profile even when the recruiter is looking for “only” around 12 years. Yet there is also so much of an emphasis on the current position and company that is sure to lock many returners out.

Finally, there was talk of both gender bias and age discrimination, specifically in the tech industry. A woman asked if it is even helpful to add photo that shows recruiters just how old she is. The response was that since profiles with a profile photo are 14 times more likely to be viewed that profiles without one, that outweighs the hypothetical disadvantage of showing an older face. Just today the Wall Street Journal posted an op-ed piece that women in tech should definitely not use their photo online not only on LinkedIn but on all social media platforms. In fact, women shouldn’t even use their own name!! The advice given: “in your LinkedIn profile, Twitter account, email address and online correspondence use your initials (or a unisex name) and eliminate photos.” Photos are used to determine not just age , but also gender and race, and give recruiters a very easy way to eliminate candidates. 

Could LinkedIn fight that?

A few weeks ago Airbnb announced it would “experiment with reducing the prominence of guest photos during the booking process” to prevent discrimination. Experts weighed in and said that more should be done to anonymize the process to combat discrimination: “profile pictures should either be eliminated or only shared after the booking is confirmed [and] that names may need to be treated the same way.” In all honestly, on LinkedIn, are names and photos even necessary? After all, skills and experience are what recruiters are really looking for, not looks. If no one had profile photos, would that level the playing field? If LinkedIn is uneasy at removing both of those, how about just for the search results? Let users optimize headlines, leaving photos and names for the full profile.

Update: one day later and a few responses have been written condemning the op-ed.”The point is, Greathouse advises women to appear more like the tech entrepreneurs we know now. But that makes absurd demands of women. And it ignores a fairer solution: asking funders to change what they think an entrepreneur looks like.” 

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