How seemingly objective policies or criteria can be used to keep black women out of positions of leadership in the workplace

Photo by Christina Morillo on

‘What’s Important for a Given Job? Whatever the Male Candidate Has.’ Williams & Dempsey (2014)

A lot of organisation pride themselves on having policies and procedures that are pro gender and race equality. It is often leaders of these companies who content themselves that they have done all that they could to level the playing field. That maybe there are just not enough black women who are capable. What they do not understand is that policies are not enough to ensure that black women are kept out of these positions and that policies can be used to keep black women out of these. The reasons for these gatekeeping activities are sometimes due to unconscious bias and at times intentional to rationalise keeping black women out. This type of bias casuistry, a technical term for what happens when people misapply general rules to justify a specific behavior or use inaccurate reasoning to rationalize their behavior.

The following is an example of a study that was done to illustrate this point:

‘In a control group in which the gender of the applicants was left ambiguous, 48 percent of the study participants ranked education as more important than experience, and 76 percent of participants chose the better-educated candidate over the candidate with more work experience.

But when the gender was made explicit, a striking pattern emerged. When the better-educated candidate was male, this pattern held: 50 percent of participants said education was more important than work experience, and 75 percent chose a better-educated male over a female with more experience.

But when the genders were switched, only 22 percent of participants said they would choose a better-educated candidate over a candidate with more work experience, and only 43 percent of participants chose the better-educated female. Study participants gave less weight to both education and work experience when a woman had them than when a man had them.’

This has led to black women to going to extreme lengths to get their feet in the door such as removing from their resumes any identifying characteristic that would identify them as black. For an example their black sounding names, any references to belonging to societies identified as black, removing some work experiences, etc.  

The danger with Casuistic bias is that people may think they’re using objective criteria to make their decisions when in fact they’re modifying the criteria used for judgment based on unconscious biases. In fact, some studies have shown that evaluators who shifted the criteria they used to make hiring decisions depending on the race or gender of an applicant actually rated themselves as more objective than those whose hiring criteria did not shift. Casuistry provides a disturbing illustration of the lengths people go to convince themselves they’re being objective even when they’re not.

That is the reason why measurement is necessary if a company is serious about increasing the representation of black women leaders in the workplace, have to introduce measurement. From the number of black candidates who are shortlisted to those who eventually get the job, promotion, etc. These metrices should be linked to performance in order to be effective. The other important thing is the posture of leadership when these type of biases are detected. The tone at the top, not only in words but in action, is important.

Published by Hlatswayobusisiwe

MBA (Henley), Career Coach and Founder Black Women in the workplace

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