The US job market season is almost upon us. Soon we’ll be hearing about how women and minorities have an advantage because everyone is so eager to hire them. And yet we’ll also be hearing complaints about the continuing underrepresentation of women and minorities. By the end of it all, people of genuine good will on hiring committees will be shaking their heads with puzzlement wondering why, despite their good intentions and efforts, they have not managed to hire more women or minorities. Research on implicit bias can help us to make sense of this situation. What I found most fascinating in the research described below was the strong desire of HR managers to hire more minorities, and the total inefficacy of this desire.
In perhaps the most dramatic real-world correlate of the bias tests, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago recently sent out 5,000 résumés to 1,250 employers who had help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston. The résumés were culled from Internet Web sites and mailed out with one crucial change: Some applicants were given stereotypically white-sounding names such as Greg; others were given black-sounding names such as Tyrone.
Interviews beforehand with human resources managers at many companies in Boston and Chicago had led the economists to believe that black applicants would be more likely to get interview calls: Employers said they were hungry for qualified minorities and were aggressively seeking diversity. Every employer got four résumés: an average white applicant, an average black applicant, a highly skilled white applicant and a highly skilled black applicant.
The economists measured only one outcome: Which résumés triggered callbacks?
To the economists’ surprise, the résumés with white-sounding names triggered 50 percent more callbacks than résumés with black-sounding names. Furthermore, the researchers found that the high-quality black résumés drew no more calls than the average black résumés. Highly skilled candidates with white names got more calls than average white candidates, but lower-skilled candidates with white names got many more callbacks than even highly skilled black applicants.
Philosophers often insist, like the HR managers in this study, that women and minorities have an advantage. Until someone comes up with a good evidence that we’re special in some way that frees us from implicit bias, I think the presumption should be the opposite. And that we need to be very aware of this. (For some more of our recent blogging on this topic, see here and here.)
The next question, of course, is what to do. Stay tuned.