Kiva Lenders Prefer to Donate to Pretty, Light-Skinned African Women
A new study has uncovered some uncomfortable information about microlending sites – and charitable giving in general. Researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University have found that attractive, thin, light-skinned females are the most likely to quickly reach their financial goals on the site. It’s a disadvantage if your photo reveals you to be overweight, dark-skinned, unattractive, or, well, male.
Walter Theseira, the lead author of the study, says he doesn’t believe that this is the result of a conscious bias on the part of lenders, according to GOOD:
“This is why [NGOs] spend so much time choosing just the right photographs to illicit donations,” Theseira says. People respond more, and with donations, to pretty, smiling faces. But “as for why people do that… it’s a bit hard to say,” he cautions. “Our hypothesis is this is probably more a form of implicit discrimination than people acting on explicit bias.”
What’s interesting about the study is that being from Africa – because of the perceived “need” in the region – strongly boosts donations. People are more likely to help someone from Kenya than Bulgaria. Only after the geographic discrimination is accounted for does the skin tone bias emerge.
It makes sense that many people are more willing to give money to women. In many cases, due to institutional sexism, women need the extra help. They might not be able to qualify for traditional loans at all, making Kiva an important alternative.
Researchers did find that people who lend frequently on the site are less likely to be biased:
“What we found [on Kiva] are these patterns of discrimination are most evident in people who don’t lend much,” he says. Habitual use of a site, he reasons, makes the lender more strategic, more businesslike, and less biased. Instead of just clicking on pretty faces, repeat users scan and search for details more relevant to loan-worthiness. “In the case of the Kiva website itself,” Theseira says, “I think if we can try to establish more clearly whether it’s implicit discrimination or something else, it might be possible to use technology to address it.” In other words, a lending site could show newer users a set of profiles designed to counteract measured biases.
Luckily, Kiva is taking these findings seriously. The site is currently looking into ways they can tweak their format and design to counteract potential bias in lenders. This could include making photos less prominent, or structuring pages so that users need to spend more time absorbing information – rather than allowing them to immediately click “donate” as soon as they see an appealing face.
Photo credit: William Murphy