Diversity initiatives are popping up all over, particularly within technology companies that have a preponderance of white men among executives and staff.
Several organizations started by putting measures in place to ensure new hires were drawn from a more diverse talent pool. Now, a new study from researchers at the University of Colorado aims to show that simply adding one minority candidate to the pipeline doesn’t guarantee a quick fix.
You can hardly blame them for trying. The business case for diversity—even in a more nuanced form—is hard for companies to ignore. So the likes of Facebook, Slack, and Pinterest attempted to change the ratio by taking a page from the NFL’s Rooney Rule. It requires at least one person from an underrepresented background and one female candidate to be interviewed for every open leadership position.
In both the NFL and among the tech companies that have tried to use the method, progress has been incremental. Only six of the league’s 32 head coaches are people of color, and the ratios at the startups haven’t budged much more.
Stefanie K. Johnson, David Hekman, and Elsa Chan of the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business were curious about the unconscious biases that did play in when diverse candidates applied for a job. They conducted three studies aimed at seeing what happened when the status quo changed.
For the first, 144 undergraduate students had to review qualifications of three job candidates who had made the short list for an open position. Though they all had the same credentials, the researchers manipulated their names to those that sound stereotypically like one race or another for a job that wasn’t typically populated with homogenous talent (athletic director). Previous studies such as the one from the National Bureau of Economic Research confirmed that candidates with African American-sounding names have been discriminated against.
In their experiment, half the students were given a candidate pool that had two white and one minority candidate and the other half had two minority and one white candidates. Unsurprisingly, when there were more white candidates, the status quo prevailed. Flip the majority and participants leaned toward recommending a black candidate.
The second study was aimed at gender instead of race using the same technique of manipulating names for a position as a nurse manager—a job typically held by a woman. Changing the talent pool to have two men changed the recommendations just as the previous experiment had.
The researchers write: "The results from these studies were what we had predicted: When there were two minorities or women in the pool of finalists, the status quo changed, resulting in a woman or minority becoming the favored candidate."
The third study analyzed the hiring results among 598 candidates for academic jobs where the finalist pool averaged around four applicants per position. Even when the finalist pool had as many as 11 candidates, the results were the same. The researchers write:
"The odds of hiring a woman were 79.14 times greater if there were at least two women in the finalist pool (controlling for the number of other men and women finalists). The odds of hiring a minority were 193.72 times greater if there were at least two minority candidates in the finalist pool (controlling for the number of other minority and white finalists)."
"When there is only one woman, she does not stand a chance of being hired," the researchers note. It’s the same for one minority candidate.
What this suggests is that bias is actually working in favor of a woman or minority candidate, if there are more than one of them in the hiring pool. Standing alone makes them stand out as different, tripping the unconscious bias most of us have in our human tribe mentality.
The researchers point out that the results of these experiments haven’t been peer-reviewed and would need to be replicated in order to see if the results hold up in different situations and contexts.
They also recognize that adding minority candidates to a talent pool could be perceived as reverse discrimination. With no studies to support the case for reverse racism, the researchers make a case for encouraging more minority candidates to better reflect the real world:
‘Non-white employees and women outnumber white men in the U.S. workplace by a margin greater than two to one, and women are now more likely than men to graduate from college. Plus, it has been found that when employers use a blind audition to hire their programmers and engineers, women tend to be hired at a higher rate than men. The same is true in blind auditions for professional orchestras."
If nothing else, they argue, "this 'get two in the pool effect' represents an important first step for overcoming unconscious biases and ushering in the racial and gender balance that we want in organizations."