Recent data shows that bias is still taking a heavy toll on equality in the workforce. In this post, we’re diving into some frustrating statistics about hiring discrimination and the force that drives it – implicit bias.

1989 – 2015: Less Progress than we Thought

According to a comprehensive study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017, hiring discrimination against black Americans and Latin Americans has improved little, if any, since 1989. Over the course of those 26 years, being white meant you were 36% more likely to receive a callback for an interview over equally qualified black applicants, and 24% more likely than Latino applicants. Many argue that we live in a post-racial world, but this is pretty damning evidence that we’re far away from that dream.
Though everyone should care about this, those of us in the world of hiring should really be taking notes. If anyone has the power to make this better (or worse) it’s us. If we want to actually get down to what accounts for this discrepancy in hiring, then we should take a look inward and examine something uncomfortable, but undeniable – implicit bias.

The Man Behind the Curtain – Implicit Bias

Implicit bias is any belief or attitude which affects our behavior, but doesn’t enter our awareness. Instead, it operates on the subconscious level, driving our feelings and actions, but without entering into our running narrative of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Implicit bias may look like avoiding a cashier who’s ethnically distinct from us, or feeling especially critical of a female boss, even though she behaves like every male boss we’ve ever had. Unfortunately, it can also look like choosing a white candidate over an equally qualified dark-skinned one, because you “went with your gut,” as many of us do.
If the idea of implicit bias isn’t resonating with you, that’s understandable. Many of us make intentional decisions and reason through them well when it comes to important things like hiring. Still, we have to respect just how powerful this phenomenon is. The current research on the topic makes a pretty airtight case for the existence, and importance of implicit bias.

The Science of Bias

In 2009, the journal of Research in Organizational Behavior published an article which makes a convincing case for the existence of implicit bias. Here are some findings from a few of the studies that they review, most of which used implicit attitudes tests (IATs), or tests that measure the level of implicit bias with respect to a certain group of people:

  • Employment recruiters whose IAT results showed an implicit preference for native Swedes over Arabs were significantly less likely to offer interviews or callbacks to equally qualified Arab applicants.
  • Participants in a study were more likely to dislike female managerial applicants than male applicants, even though both presented themselves as confident, ambitious, and qualified. This was especially true of participants whose IAT scores revealed an implicit preference for maleness.
  • White students whose IAT scores revealed a strong implicit preference for whiteness were more likely to use racial slurs and engage in racist behavior.
  • Doctors whose IAT scores showed implicit preference for whiteness were more likely to deny certain treatment opportunities to their black patients.

These are only 4 of the 10 studies examined; the others help confirm that implicit attitudes tests do reveal important and problematic behaviors. In other words: implicit bias exists, we can measure it, and it has real-world effects. If you aren’t sold yet, see if you can get access to their article and contend with their arguments.

What’s Next?

As hiring managers, we have an obligation to take this information to heart. If we don’t learn to challenge our implicit biases and the behaviors they generate, then we run the risk of perpetuating societal ills like racial hiring discrimination, not to mention discrimination based on class, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or body type. The next step is to figure out how to tackle these biases as an individual, and as a company. In our next post, we’ll take a look at what actions steps are being taken by smart companies to eliminate bias in hiring.