People from marginalized groups can increase their chances of getting career help when they explicitly mention their demographic identity in written requests for support, according to a new study from Wharton experts.
The study, which was published last month in Nature Human Behaviour, is a departure from previous research that finds minorities are more likely to face discrimination if decision-makers can figure out their identities through inadvertent cues, like an ethnic-sounding name on a resume. Many minority job-seekers deliberately scrub their CVs of any hints about their identities in order to avoid such bias.
But the study suggests that women and minorities may want to spell out their underrepresented status rather than softening it. Across three experiments, the researchers found a significantly higher response rate for emails that clearly stated identity in requests for help, such as “As a Black man in tech…”
The researchers believe that when a marginalized identity is made explicit, prospective helpers are motivated by a desire to avoid feeling or appearing prejudiced. In other words, they want to prove to themselves and to others that they do not discriminate.
“At a more abstract level, I think an important takeaway is that people can avoid discriminating when they are made aware that their behavior may be influenced by bias,” said Erika L. Kirgios, a Wharton doctoral candidate who is lead author on the study.
A request for help that contains specific identity language — for example, “As a Black woman working in technology, I’m hoping to get your advice” — signals the recipient to think carefully about bias and consider how to counteract it in their response.
“They want to feel like they are good people,” Kirgios said of prospective helpers. “In the U.S., we have for decades now equated being sexist or being racist with being a bad person. You don’t want to think of yourself that way. You don’t want to believe you’re a bad person. You want to believe you would treat people fairly.”
The study co-authors are Aneesh Rai, a Wharton doctoral candidate; Edward H. Chang, a business administration assistant professor at Harvard Business School; and Katy Milkman, a Wharton professor of operations, information, and decisions. Kirgios said the idea behind the study came from a conversation she had with Milkman about an email from an undergraduate seeking research opportunities. The student wrote that she was Latina from a low-income background. Kirgios and Milkman began debating whether such a disclosure would help or hurt someone’s chances of getting what they wanted.
“Katy’s hypothesis was that mentioning identity would work only when you contact someone who also shares your identity. I thought it would always work, no matter the recipient’s identity. As soon as we disagreed, we knew we had something,” Kirgios recalled.
The scholars conducted the following three experiments to test their hypotheses:
- Nearly 2,500 white male city council members from across the U.S. were sent emails from a fictitious student requesting career help. The letters randomly identified the student as a white male or a minority, either explicitly or not. Across the four categories, city council members were 24.4% more likely to respond when women and racial minorities explicitly stated their identity.
- Nearly 1,200 diverse undergraduate students at an East Coast university were sent emails requesting research help from a fictitious student named Demarcus Rivers, a name chosen to signal his identity. Students were randomly assigned to read letters that either included specific mention of Demarcus’ race (“As a Black man pursuing a PhD…”) or no mention (“As someone pursuing a PhD…”). The undergrads were 79.6% more likely to help Demarcus when he mentioned his race.
- Nearly 1,500 participants, who were recruited online, were asked to imagine being a computer science professor tasked with choosing one of four students to refer for a prestigious conference. Participants read application emails from the four candidates, one of whom was the Black man. The email from the Black male student either explicitly referred to his identity or simply signaled it via his name. Participants were 50% more likely to refer the Black man when he explicitly mentioned his identity.
The authors said the results reveal how participants pay closer attention to potential bias once that issue is made salient, and they respond according to their own values, beliefs, and perceptions.
“You’re bringing an internal audience into the conversation,” Kirgios said of the decision-making. “Suddenly, people are watching themselves make this decision and using their behavior to tell themselves what kind of person they are.” So, what might they be learning about themselves when they choose to help women and racial minorities? “I think there are two different types of cognition that could be happening here. One is avoidance, which is making sure that I don’t feel like I’ve been racist or sexist, and the other is affirming that I genuinely care about helping women and racial minorities succeed, and I’m behaving consistently with those values. Both can be happening here, but our experiments don’t disentangle the two.”
The scholars point out that the experiments don’t measure the full effect of external or reputational pressure because the participants were responding privately to the correspondence — nobody else knew the outcome of their decisions. In more public settings, these effects may be even stronger. That’s an area ripe for further research, along with looking at how disclosing identities beyond race and gender affects offers of support.
“We want to explore whether the strategy is as effective for nonvisible identities,” Kirgios said. “With race and gender, it’s clear evaluators will figure it out anyway eventually. But there are a lot of identities for which you could make the choice to conceal throughout your tenure,” including sexual orientation, religion, nonvisible physical disabilities or neurodiversity, income status, first-generation status, and more.
From a managerial standpoint, Kirgios said, the study also has implications for the workplace. It suggests that employees will think more about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) if those principles are prioritized throughout the levels of decision-making.
“It really matters what’s top of mind when you’re making decisions, and if DEI isn’t top of mind, it won’t be a factor,” she said. “Companies know what matters in the workplace for performance. They will set explicit goals for things like sales numbers, but they don’t do enough in terms of clearly stating what’s expected for DEI.”