Considering the Stigma of Affirmative Action

Two recent studies out of the University of Michigan raise some troubling questions about just how far we’ve come as a diverse 468250323 -- diversity hiringnation, with equal access to all in life, school and work.

The most recent, published on the Phys.Org site just this past Monday, contains the unsettling finding that, although a credential from an elite university results in more employer responses for all applicants, black candidates from these prestigious universities do only as well in getting the job as white candidates from less-selective universities.

When our editorial team discussed this study at its Tuesday news meeting, “unsettling” wasn’t the word most used. “Sad” was the term of choice.

“These racial differences,” says the study’s author, S. Michael Gaddis, “suggest that a bachelor’s degree, even one from an elite institution, cannot fully counteract the importance of race in the labor market. Thus, both discrimination and differences in human capital contribute to racial economic inequality.”

One can’t help but wonder if some of those hiring managers and recruiters studied by Gaddis weren’t jaded by assumptions that such a collegiate star — at least on paper — was the recipient of favorable treatment and maybe easier hurdles to jump, thanks to affirmative action.

Which brings me to the other, earlier U-M research that essentially confirms — by carefully examining — the stereotypes many do, indeed, have about co-workers who advance through affirmative action and diversity initiatives.

Researchers David Mayer of the U-M’s Ross School of Business, Lisa Leslie of New York University’s Stern School of Business and David Kravitz of George Mason University’s School of Business examined research showing affirmative-action recipients being viewed as less competent and competing for company resources. Based on that, they say, they’re seen as less likeable by their colleagues, which can lead to negative assessments of their performance.

“People have all kinds of assumptions about what affirmative action means,” says Mayer. “A lot of people assume it’s about hiring people less qualified [than leading candidates] because they are a member of a protected group … .”

In Leslie’s words:

“Diversity initiatives are effective, but also produce unintended consequences that can limit the career success of the very groups of employees they are intended to benefit. Implementing an affirmative-action plan without taking steps to avoid unintended consequence is unlikely to be an effective solution.”

So what should employers do with all this? Researchers from the earlier study say none of the drawbacks mean companies should get rid of affirmative-action programs. Instead, they say, such programs should be implemented more effectively and positive outcomes, such as having high-level minority role models in business organizations, should be studied.

But how do we alter those silent, destructive mind-sets that very well could be impacting resume assessments where ethnicities are known? Those mind-sets that whisper “easier ride”?

Hard to say.

2 thoughts on “Considering the Stigma of Affirmative Action”

  1. “One can’t help but wonder if some of those hiring managers and recruiters studied by Gaddis weren’t jaded by assumptions that such a collegiate star — at least on paper — was the recipient of favorable treatment and maybe easier hurdles to jump, thanks to affirmative action.”

    I would say that’s either a stretch or a lack of faith in HR workers’ reading skills. Beyond the elite degrees, the candidates also had stellar GPAs (putting them in the top 10% of the previous graduating class), extracurriculars, and experience. If they were seen as affirmative action admits at some point, they certainly proved they belonged at the top. Good attempt at spin though.

  2. Well, why NOT get rid of preferential treatment and start treating people as individuals and without regard to race, ethnicity, or sex? Politically correct discrimination, like politically incorrect discrimination, is divisive and unfair; hires and promotes those who are, by definition, not the most qualified; and is ILLEGAL for employers anyhow. Stopping this practice will also, as the article suggests, help get rid of the stigma and stereotype that goes along with holding people to lower standards just because they are minority or female.

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