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On the Job: Bias can sneak into job, mentoring, promotion processes

Published December 2, 2012 1:39 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Could someone named Jamal have more difficulty getting help from a mentor or attention from a higher-up than someone named Brad?

That's a question that Katherine Milkman, assistant professor of operations and information management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, explored in a study. She says her own experience applying as one of the few female doctoral students in the computer science and economics departments at Harvard University helped inspire her interest in the subject.

The results from her study of more than 6,500 professors at 260 top universities were disheartening, Milkman says, because it was clear that professors often didn't respond quickly — or at all — to minority students and women with names that revealed their ethnicity and gender compared to a student whose name sounded as if he were a white male.

The only time minority or female students did receive speedy responses from professors was when students cited an immediate deadline in a request, she says.

"When the person had to make a last-minute decision, in that moment the person was more focused on getting the task done and responded right away," she says.

But if a professor had a week or more to respond to a request, the response time really lagged for minorities and women, she says.

She also notes that some minority groups that experienced "wildly severe discrimination" were Asians and Indians.

So what can be learned from such information for the workplace today?

Milkman says that minorities and women seeking jobs or perhaps a promotion need to make sure that decision-makers understand their qualifications. They should they play up their references, and "leave as little question to their abilities as possible."

She also suggests trying to close the distance between an applicant and the decision-makers or gatekeepers as much as possible. Use social networking tools such as Facebook or Twitter to become more connected to hiring managers or key personnel. Or bring up the fact that you live in the same neighborhood or city as a way to close the distance with a key person.

"Any distance for a minority is bad," Milkman says. "Any way you can find to become closer can be helpful."

Organizations also can learn key lessons from the study, Milkman says.

A company may have a diversity program in place, but it won't be effective in eliminating bias if all the gateways and gatekeepers aren't educated about prejudices.

In the case of the professors, they probably were not thinking that their response time indicated bias. But once they are told they must have rules in place to deal with all mentor requests the same way, they can decide whether they will respond to all — or none — of the requests. That eliminates any chance of hidden biases creeping into their decision-making and adversely affecting a student's ability to succeed, she says.

"We just need to educate about all the pathway moments," she says. "Organizations have to be attentive and don't just let people rule by their gut. We have to make sure that rules are race and gender blind."

Milkman's research backs up a 2004 study that found white applicants received a 50 percent higher callback rate for job interviews compared to identical black job applicants when resumes indicated an applicant's race and gender.

While that study identified bias in entry-level jobs, Milkman says her research shows that bias takes place even at higher education levels.

Anita Bruzzese can be reached c/o Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22107