By Yvonne Milosevic
A new study from researchers at the Wharton School offers a ray of hope where demographic bias is concerned. When it comes to asking for career guidance, they found that people who leaned into their minority identity were more likely to receive help than those who did not mention their race or gender.
A debate between its lead author, doctoral candidate Erika Kirgios, and Wharton Professor Katy Milkman inspired this study. An email had come in where the writer mentioned her identity as a Latina from a low-income background. Milkman believed that disclosing one’s identity would be helpful only if the addressee also shared that background. But Kirgios felt otherwise.
“I thought it would always work, no matter the recipient’s identity,” she recalled. “As soon as we disagreed, we knew we had something.”
Testing the Identity Theory
Joined by the study’s co-authors, Wharton doctoral candidate Aneesh Rai and Harvard Business School assistant professor Edward H. Chang, Kirgios and Milkman ran three experiments to test their identity theory.
First, they sent emails from a fictitious student requesting career help to nearly 2,500 white male city council members across the U.S. The letters identified the student as a white male or a minority, either directly or not.
“Across the four categories, city council members were 24.4% more likely to respond when women and racial minorities explicitly stated their identities,” they found.
In a second email experiment, fictional student “Demarcus Rivers” requested research help from 1,200 undergrads at an East Coast university. Some letters included a specific mention of Demarcus’s race (“As a Black man pursuing a PhD…”). Other letters didn’t specify identity (“As someone pursuing a PhD…”).
The researchers found that “the undergrads were 79.6% more likely to help Demarcus when he mentioned his race.”
Finally, the study’s authors recruited nearly 1,500 participants online for a third experiment. They asked them to imagine they were a computer science professor choosing one of four students to refer for a prestigious conference. Participants then read application emails from the fictitious candidates, one of whom was a Black man. In some cases, the Black student directly referenced his identity. In other emails, readers inferred it from his name.
“Participants were 50% more likely to refer the Black man when he explicitly mentioned his identity,” the researchers learned.
Why Does Being Explicit Help?
You might find the results of this study unexpected. After all, previous research revealed that minorities who “whitened” their resumes were much more likely to receive a callback than job applicants whose racial identity was easily discerned.
That study came out in 2017—a whole different era in understanding and acknowledging racism and bias in society. Today, the Wharton researchers suspect that prospective helpers want to prove to themselves that they don’t discriminate against others.
“They want to feel like they are good people,” Kirgios says 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.”
“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,” says Kirgios.
While the new study isn’t looking at job applicants, we hope the takeaways spill over. Kirgios says the study also has implications for the workplace from a managerial standpoint. It suggests that employees will think more about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) if companies prioritize those principles, she explains.
In the end, “It really matters what’s top of mind when you’re making decisions,” says Kirgios. “If DEI isn’t top of mind, it won’t be a factor.”