Why Are We Still Discriminating?

Posted on August 28, 2013.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Living just outside of DC at the time, I remember the event well, despite my young age at the time.  While we’ve come a long way from blatant segregation, discrimination is alive and well, especially in corporate America. Why is that?

These days, discrimination isn’t just about race. It includes, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, age and other characteristics. Coming from the world of finance, I was saddened to hear of the passing of Muriel Siebert.  Talk about a groundbreaker. In 1967, Muriel was the first woman to hold a seat on the NYSE. That was almost 50 years ago and women still represent less than 20% of C-suite positions and board seats of Fortune 500 companies.  Pay gaps still exist between white men and just about everyone else.

So in 50 years, we’ve passed a lot of anti-discrimination laws, but it’s still with us.  I spent many years in a male dominated field and often felt overlooked and underappreciated. Was it blatant discrimination or failure on my part? I’ve come to realize that most discrimination is not done with malice.  Many people don’t even realize they’ve done it. They rationalize that John Doe was absolutely the best candidate. I’ll admit that at one point in my management career, I looked around and realized that the last 4 people I hired were all women.  Did I discriminate? Maybe. Did I think so at the time? Absolutely not.

While I know that some people are egregiously biased, I’ve come to believe that most people don’t consciously discriminate. But as managers and leaders that make hiring and promotion decisions every day, we need to find ways to raise our consciousness. So next time, before you make that decision, ask yourself the following:

·      How much is this candidate like me?  Do we have similar backgrounds, likes and dislikes, hobbies? It’s easy to fall victim to the halo effect when you share similar characteristics.

·      Which candidate has the best experience? I’ve seen solid experience and strong accomplishments dismissed first hand with comments like,” they’re really good at what they do, but probably couldn’t take the next step”. Or “they’re really good at working with XXXX, but I don’t see them being able to expand beyond what they already know.”

If you’re really honest with yourself, you catch your own discriminating tendency.  Every time you make a hiring or promotion decision, you should put the strengths and weaknesses on a piece of paper and ask a peer for a second look. Sometimes doing something so simple can help you build more diversity.