Diversity and Inclusion

Not All Discrimination Is Obvious

This article is sponsored by Columbia Business School.

Paying women less than men or denying benefits and rights to LGBT workers are blatant examples for workplace discrimination, but those are not the only instances of prejudice and stereotyping that affect workers. At times, discrimination can be imperceptible and even unintentional. This is considered subtle discrimination, and it’s the subject of ongoing research for Modupe Akinola, Associate Professor of Management at Columbia Business School.

“Subtle discrimination can manifest in many ways. For instance, in different social networks between minorities versus non-minorities,” Akinola says. “It’s not that people are always blatantly trying to discriminate; it is that traditional systems that help one progress in an organization have been developed for certain groups of people, namely those in the majority, and often exclude others.”

Akinola, along with Ashleigh Shelby Rosette of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and Anyi Ma, a PhD candidate at the Fuqua School, collaborated on a chapter on the topic titled, “Subtle Discrimination in the Workplace: Individual-Level Factors and Processes” for The Oxford Handbook of Workplace Discrimination, published in 2018 by Oxford University Press.

In the chapter, Akinola details the results of experiments which test the hypothesis that white coworkers tend to be more lenient with feedback and criticism toward their minority colleagues relative to their white colleagues. She notes that evaluators’ desire to appear egalitarian can also prove to be a difficulty for minorities in the workplace.

Akinola’s research shows that subtle discrimination can occur during the hiring process. She writes that people in various occupations and industries have demonstrated prejudice against candidates with “black-sounding names (e.g. Lakisha, Jamal),” instead favoring those with “white-sounding names (e.g. Emily, Greg).” Akinola goes on to say that subtle discrimination in hiring “extends beyond race to other social categories including gender, sexual orientation, obesity and pregnancy.”

This subtle discrimination may persist once a candidate has been hired and is subjected to what researchers call “pathway processes”—the various processes that help or hinder one from advancing in an organization, such as feedback, mentorship, and social network development.

Akinola says that social networks are the “conduits through which you get access to information and opportunities” and that many of these social networks and relationships are founded on shared similarities.  In workplaces without a high degree of diversity, with very few women and minorities in senior positions, having seemingly few commonalities with those around you can be an obstacle for minorities and women.

“It can be harder for a woman or a person of color to break into a social network and develop the types of relationships that a male or non-minority can develop, which has implications for career advancement,” Akinola says.

This is why Forté’s efforts to shake up the status quo are so important. Ana Duarte-McCarthy, Director of Development, Corporate Partners, at Forté, and a former corporate chief diversity officer, says, “In recognition of the subtle forms of bias that persist in society, Forté created the business leadership conference for undergraduate women of color. The conference fosters candid conversations about these matters,  while focusing on strategies for success.”

In addition to teaching at Columbia, Modupe Akinola works with companies to ensure they have fair systems and processes in place for all. She says many firms have been interested in “how to create psychologically safe environments where people feel comfortable getting to know each other formally and informally, appreciating and valuing differences, and learning to give and receive feedback in an open manner.”

Still, Akinola says there is plenty to be done not only to raise awareness of subtle discrimination, but to prevent it. She says, “The ultimate goal is to make sure there is greater representation of women and minorities in the top levels in organizations, and to make ensure everyone can bring their full selves to work.”

This article has been modified from its original posting at Columbia Business School.

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