Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Hiring Minorities Solves Our Discrimination Problem, Right? Wrong!

There has been long-standing discrimination in US workplaces against women and minorities of all kinds. The salary difference between men and women doing comparable work is well known, and so are the problems of getting hired and retained faced by people of color and immigrants. The solution mandated by many employers and recommended by others is to ensure that hiring new employees is non-discriminatory in job description, advertisement, and selection processes. This focus has proven effective in getting to fair hiring practices.

But, less well known, what happens afterward has not been fixed: promotion and even retention (keeping the job) show the same discrimination as hiring used to do. Why? This is where research by Tanya Y. Tian and Edward B. Smith in Administrative Science Quarterly provides some very compelling answers. They zoomed in on Black professors in a major research university – the employees most affected by discrimination and the workplace most serious about fixing this problem – and checked what happened after a period of fair hiring practices.

To understand their research, it is important to understand that evaluating professors’ productivity is not very different from evaluating other professionals like lawyers and consultants. Good output volume and quality measures are available and are used for retention and promotion decisions, and to some extent they are over-used compared to less measurable contributions because the decision to fire an employee may have to be defended in court. Another important feature of universities is that they contain a combination of standard and customized positions, and customization can be used to create positions that address the university’s diversity needs or to fit in Black applicants whose CVs do not exactly fit what might be sought for a given standard position.

And that’s where the problems begin. Both the customized positions and the general status of being Black and thus a signal of diversity mean that the employee has to produce more output along the less measurable dimensions, the ones that count less for promotion. Given that hours per day is a constant and junior faculty work as much as they can to begin with, Black professors are disadvantaged in the promotion process. The research showed that this was true. Also, it showed that their lower retention rate was because Black professors were disproportionately placed in non-standard positions. And this held true even when taking into account their research productivity – which didn’t matter because non-standard positions led to lower research productivity.

So fair inclusion is a good thing, except that it isn’t good when fairness happens only at the point of hiring, not later. This serious problem is not well known among employers or job seekers, and it urgently needs more attention. That is why research like this is important.

Tian, Tanya Y. and Edward B. Smith. 2024. Stretched Thin: How a Misalignment Between Allocation and Valuation Underlies the Paradox of Diversity Achievement in Higher Education. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.