Imagine you’re a hiring manager at a tech company and you’re looking through applications for a computer programmer position. One of the applicants is an Asian woman. How might the fact that she’s Asian and a woman affect your evaluation of her? And would how you see her make a difference in whether or not you hire her? None at all? Are you sure?
Gender bias in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is a well-documented fact. In one study, STEM faculty themselves rated a female applicant as less hireable and offered her less pay than a male applicant – even though they had the exact same CV. But, interestingly, Asian people are positively stereotyped in the STEM area. So what happens when two conflicting stereotypes come into play? This is what Aneeta Rattan, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS), was intrigued to investigate.
“We socially categorise people almost the instant we come across them, often unconsciously and without even realising we’re doing it ,” Dr Rattan explains. “Interpersonal perception can depend on which aspects of someone’s identity are salient.” Can a differential emphasis on aspects of the same person’s identity affect how much male evaluators discriminate in a hiring context? Astonishingly, the answer is yes.
Together with Jennifer Steele, Associate Professor and Undergraduate Program Director, Department of Psychology, York University in Canada and the late Nalini Ambady, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, Dr Rattan designed three experiments to illuminate this under-examined area of hiring behaviour. The hypothesis for all three studies carried out was that men would evaluate an applicant for a tech job more positively if her racial identity was emphasised, rather than her gender.
A closer look at discrimination
What prompted the research? “I thought of this as a very first step in trying to understand some of the intersections of identity that might meaningfully impact the outcomes that people experience. Finding that these intersections matter for evaluations emphasises how much more research needs to be done to look across different identities – gender, race, sexual orientation, disability status, age, and social class – to name just a few,” says Dr Rattan. “Secondly, we were interested in the question of whether an Asian-American woman might experience a more moderate level of discrimination because of the positive discrimination to do with her race.
“Finally, what is it that’s driving gender-biased employment discrimination? If we find that participants looking at the same person with the same exact qualification rate her less well when they’re thinking in terms of her gender, we can show very specifically and unequivocally that it’s the stereotypes associated with gender in the minds of perceivers that is driving the discrimination.”
Many people are shocked to imagine that the same person could be viewed as more or less hireable depending on what aspect of their identity is at the fore in the hirer’s perception. This makes it even more interesting and worthwhile, Dr Rattan believes. “People really vary in their intuitions about whether this research would yield different ratings of the candidate. Many think, ‘No, it’s the same person – how can the way I think about her affect my ratings, given both her race and gender are visible?’ That’s why it’s meaningful and interesting research to be doing, and impactful - if we can all have different gut instincts then it means that we really do need the science to tell us .”