The Truth About Hiring Bias

There’s plenty of research to back up the existence of race and gender bias in hiring and in the workplace. But did you know bias can be triggered even before you formally apply for a job? All it takes is an email, a team of researchers found.

Have you ever sent a note to a hiring manager to ask for more details about a job posting before applying? Through this first contact you’re trying to make a good impression and send signals about yourself—you’re a go-getter and self-starter—but you’re also sending signals you’re likely not trying to broadcast, like your gender and race. Prospective employers are picking up on this information and using it to make decisions, subconsciously or not, the researchers found.

Hiring BiasKatherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, Modupe Akinola of Columbia University and Dolly Chugh of New York University performed a study in which they sent emails to more than 6,500 professors from 89 disciplines at 259 top universities. The emails appeared to be sent by prospective doctoral students looking for research opportunities.

All the emails were the same—they asked for a short meeting with the professor, either that day or in a week’s time—the only thing that varied was the signature. The 20 different names used to sign the emails were meant to indicate the race and gender of the prospective student. The ethnicities the researchers chose to signal for were white, black, Hispanic, Indian and Chinese. Each of these racial groups were represented by four names, two male and two female. For example, the fictional white male students’ names were Brad Anderson and Steven Smith and the black female students’ names were Keisha Thomas and Latoya Brown. (A separate study, based on U.S. Census data and other factors, was conducted ahead of time to determine which names should be used in this one.)

Before conducting the study, the researchers hypothesized that the fictional students who appeared to be white men would get the best response from the professors, and they were right. Across almost all disciplinary areas, white women and members of all the represented minority groups received fewer email responses.

The biggest “discriminatory gap,” as the researchers called it, in responses was found from the 265 business professors they studied. Within this discipline, professors responded to white male prospective students 82 percent of the time and women and minorities 62 percent of the time. Education departments showed the next biggest gap, with professors responding to white males 82 percent of the time and women and minorities 65 percent of the time.

On the other end of the spectrum, humanities professors responded to white men only 1 percent more than other types of prospective students. In fine arts, professors were actually 16 percent more likely to respond to a woman or a minority than a white male.

Hiring Bias
This graph shows the size of the “discriminatory gap” in each of the broad disciplines the researchers studied. The gray bars represent discrimination against women and minorities. The black bar represents discrimination against white men. Courtesy of the American Psychological Association and the researchers.

Interestingly, discrimination was greater the more the position paid. The more money the student was likely to make in the prospective job, the more the professors were drawn to respond to the while male students, the researchers found. They also found that in general there was no benefit to students of color contacting professors of color, or female students contacting female professors.

“Our work reveals that when a field boasts impressive representation to of minorities and women within its ranks, this cannot be assumed to eliminate or even necessarily reduce discrimination,” they wrote.

“Policymakers and university leaders should be aware of the particular need for academic programs designed to combat discrimination, particularly in high-paying disciplines and at private universities.”

What implicit biases do you hold? Take this quiz from Harvard University and find out.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.