Three Subtle Ways We Perpetuate Inequality

Professor Aaron Kay explains the surprising ways bias and stereotypes persist in our organizations

June 24, 2020
Behavioral Science, Diversity


The world’s largest tech companies, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, have made huge financial investments to increase their diversity over the past several years. 

For the most part, they’re struggling to move the needle, said Aaron Kay, a management professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. This is because, in spite of their purposeful efforts to increase diversity, organizations may be making a number of other choices that can perpetuate inequality. 

“People need to know what is preventing an organization or society from achieving social change, and often, it’s more complex than only weeding out those who hold explicitly racist or sexist beliefs or understanding unconscious bias,” Kay said.

These unintentional acts could come down to something as simple as a firm’s word choice in a job description, Kay’s research has found. He discussed these findings and two other examples from his research on LinkedIn Live (see video above).

Coded language in job descriptions
It was once legal for businesses to specify in job advertisements whether they preferred male or female applicants. Because this practice has long been outlawed, people believe job ads are generally gender neutral, Kay said.

“We found in our research that although explicit references to men or women as ideal candidates have largely disappeared, the gender of the ideal candidate is still conveyed in the ad – just more subtly through wording in an advertisement that reflects broader cultural stereotypes about men and women,” Kay said.

For example, the adjectives competitive and dominant are far more present in ads for jobs that are held by men rather than women, he said, and experiments determined that they dissuaded female applicants.

“When we apply the same logic to racial inequality in organizations, we can see that whenever a group is largely excluded from organizations there are likely many subtle and mundane factors – job ad wording being just one – that tell people that this workplace is not for them,” Kay said.

But what is encouraging about this research, he said, is that it makes clear what actions firms need to take to make their job advertisements more inclusive. This research has even led to services that help companies achieve more neutral language in their job descriptions. 

Continued acceptance of positive stereotypes
While negative stereotypes have become less culturally acceptable, positive stereotypes are still prevalent and remain culturally acceptable, Kay said. What may surprise many people is that positive stereotypes can also feed the same systemic discrimination that negative ones do.

“The relative ease with which positive stereotypes can fly under the radar or evade raising red flags may ironically make them more damaging in this day and age than even negative stereotypes,” Kay said. 

One experiment Kay, which describes in his research, demonstrates how a so-called positive stereotype – that African-Americans are more athletically gifted than others – can perpetuate inequality in education. 

Participants in the experiment studied the profile of a high school student athlete who was excelling in sports, and although he was interested in academics, he was barely passing all of his classes. Some participants were told the fictional student was white while others were told he was African-American.

When participants believed the student was white, they recommended he double down on studying to raise his grades. Participants who thought the fictional student was African-American made the opposite recommendation, suggesting he spend less time studying and focus instead on athletics.

“Most of the time, advising someone to sacrifice academic studies for athletics – probably bad advice,” Kay said. “But because the Black athletic stereotype is flattering, people may find it easier to funnel Black students toward this path, rather than one more than likely to lead to career success, without concerns of appearing to themselves or others as racist or prejudice. Interestingly, participants’ negative beliefs about African-Americans did not predict them giving this racist advice. It was only the degree to which they endorsed positive stereotypes that led to this difference.”

Resistance to changes in social status
But a more specific personality dimension – social dominance orientation – describes a resistance to changes in established social hierarchies, Kay explained.

“What this orientation refers to is, roughly put, a tendency to believe that group-based hierarchy is good and desirable,” Kay said. 
Experiments in his research suggest that people with a high level of social dominance orientation in personality tests were more likely to support a movement or organization when it appeared to be informal or decentralized, because it may not pose a real threat to creating change.  

The better organized the group appears to be, for example, establishing centralized leadership, a visible spokesperson and a clear agenda, the more likely they are to encounter resistance from people with high social dominance orientation, who prefer that established social hierarchies remain unchanged. This could be an obstacle for movements such as Black Lives Matter, Kay said.

“As a movement gains focus and organization, people who are motivated to preserve the current system, for whatever reason, will start feeling more threatened and then resist the movement even more,” he said. “So in predicting obstacles to racial equality, it isn't enough to just worry that racist people are going to be against change, but we also have to prepare for increased resistance as the movement gains traction and becomes seemingly more effective.”

With many causes of inequality being so subtle, it will take sustained efforts from both researchers and firms to change the many systems and behaviors that subtly perpetuate inequality. Fortunately, Kay said, there’s also a lot of momentum right now.

“Organizations, at least from what they're saying, appear genuinely motivated to try something different and experiment with ideas. So I'm hopeful we can all work together across academics and organizations to make a real difference and see real change.”

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