Past studies have bolstered the idea that marginalized groups might find more career opportunities if they downplay their identities.
But women and minorities may actually benefit by explicitly mentioning their identities, at least when asking others for help, according to new research that emerges at a time when many marginalized groups are calling for more equitable treatment in the workplace.
“A lot of people from historically marginalized groups have experienced marginalization and discrimination, and that makes us wary to put [our identities] out there,” says Edward Chang, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, who co-authored the study published in Nature Human Behaviour with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania colleagues Erika Kirgios, Aneesh Rai, and Katherine Milkman. “One of the interesting things about our study is that when you do put your identity out there, it appears to activate different things psychologically in people’s minds than when people infer your identity from your name.”
“They’re thinking … ‘If I care about not being prejudiced, I should maybe take a little bit of extra time and think a little bit harder.'”
When people seeking help explicitly call out their identity as Black, Latinx, or female, others become more aware of the potential for discrimination, the research shows. And when people are on high alert for their own unconscious bias, they tend to take action to compensate. The authors describe it as overwriting “automatic processes” in favor of more deliberation.
“They’re thinking, ‘Oh, wait, this is a situation that I might need to be worried about if I care about not being biased,’” says Chang. “’If I care about not being prejudiced, I should maybe take a little bit of extra time and think a little bit harder.’”
People respond more when identities are mentioned
The researchers conducted three experiments designed to examine whether “help-seekers” should call attention to their identities. In the first, the researchers sent about 2,500 white male city councilors emails from a fictitious student requesting career advice. The councilors received identical email queries except for two differences.
Sometimes, the student requesting help was a white male student; other times, the student was a white female, Black male, Black female, Latino, or Latina. The second difference involved whether a student explicitly mentioned identity in the email, including the line, “I was hoping you might be willing to write back with a few words of wisdom for a young [person]/[man/woman/Black man/Black woman/Latino/Latina] hoping to one day become a city councilor like you …” When students mentioned their identities in their emails, city councilors were about 25 percent more likely to respond to the queries than when they didn’t.
In a second study, about 1,200 undergraduate students received a request for research help from “Demarcus Rivers,” a fictitious graduate student whose name was chosen to signal a Black identity. All emails were identical except sometimes, Demarcus specifically referenced his identity (“As a Black man…”), while other times he did not. The researchers found that students were up to 80 percent more likely to offer to help when Demarcus referred to his identity.
“You can instead say, ‘This is who I am, and this is the identity that I’m going to be bringing to the workplace.'”
In a third study, 1,500 adults were asked to imagine being a computer science instructor tasked with choosing one out of four former students to refer for a prestigious conference. Participants read emails from four candidates requesting a referral before choosing one. One of the four students was a Black male. Consistent with their earlier findings, the researchers found that when the Black male student mentioned his identity, he was more likely to be selected to receive a referral. That’s due to an internal motivation on the part of others to respond without prejudice, the research suggests.
“An optimistic view of this work is that I think arguably, being identity-forward is more authentic than trying to hide your identity,” says Kirgios, a doctoral candidate at Wharton who was the lead author on the paper. “So, instead of trying to pretend like you’re not a woman or you’re not a racial minority, or hiding affinity groups from your extracurriculars on your resume, you can instead say, ‘This is who I am, and this is the identity that I’m going to be bringing to the workplace.’”
Should people share their identities?
The researchers believe the current research shows that women and minorities can benefit by putting their identities front and center, rather than waiting for unconscious biases to creep in, particularly when requesting assistance.
“The most direct and obvious takeaway is, when you’re trying to build connections, when you’re trying to get a foot in the door, it can often be helpful to emphasize your identity,” says Kirgios.
Chang agrees: “We found it very heartening that this was something that women and minorities can do to try to better their outcomes, given that there’s so much research showing how women and minorities are often disadvantaged in different situations,” he says.
The researchers say this is the first in a series of studies on the topic, and they plan to look deeper at how calling out identities may affect job negotiations and other career-related outcomes.
“There are lots of open questions,” says Chang. “We’re talking about using this tactic in a one-off interaction asking for help, but we don’t know what’s going to happen if it’s a prolonged interaction.”
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