A friend (let’s call her Rosa) recently spent several weeks cold-e-mailing business school alumni who had built successful ventures. Rosa is a woman of color and an aspiring entrepreneur, and she planned to apply to business school herself. She hoped to build her network or at least get some useful advice. But she faced a dilemma: In her messages, should she highlight that she’s a woman and a member of a racial minority group in entrepreneurship—or let her identity fade into the background?
We were also curious. After all, Rosa’s identity might help her stand out in a positive way, or it could trigger a prejudiced response. So we decided to do some research. We surveyed 200 people who identified as women or members of racial or ethnic minority groups to ask what they would do in Rosa’s shoes. Only 35 percent told us they would highlight their identity in requests for career support. Rosa herself, who ultimately decided not to mention her identity, articulated a concern that many of our respondents shared: “I’m worried I’ll come off as needy or seeking attention or like I’m playing this ‘race’ or ‘female’ card if I mention my identity explicitly.”
These fears are reasonable. Several decades of experiments have shown that women and members of racial minority groups whose name signals their identity typically receive fewer responses than white men to otherwise identical e-mails or job applications. Just signing an e-mail as “Amanda Cabot,” “Alma Hernandez” or “Deshawn Washington” leads people to assume that they know your race, ethnicity or gender. If the signature alone makes someone less likely to respond to a message, it’s sensible to worry that drawing extra attention to your marginalized identity can only make things worse.
But our recent research suggests the opposite is often true. We have found that explicitly mentioning your underrepresented identity when seeking career help can be beneficial.
We first tested this idea in a large experiment with local elected officials. We sent networking e-mails to 2,476 white, male city councilmen from 701 U.S. cities, including giant ones such as New York City and smaller ones such as Bentonville, Ark. Our e-mails appeared to come from students who said they wanted advice about going into politics. (In reality, these students were fictitious.) We varied the senders, using names that suggested they were white men (e.g., “Hunter Anderson”), white women (e.g., “Abigail Miller”), Black men (e.g., “Tyrone Robinson”), Black women (e.g., “Aliyah Harris”), Latinos (e.g., “Alejandro Gutierrez”) or Latinas (e.g., “Camila Rodriguez”). All the e-mails were identical except that some messages explicitly mentioned the fictional sender’s identity and others did not.
We sent our e-mails on a Tuesday morning. Within one week, about a third of the contacted politicians had replied. Response rates to e-mails from names perceived as belonging to white men were similar, whether they referred to themselves as a “young person” or referenced their gender by describing themselves as a “young man.” (We did not use e-mails that directly referred to white senders’ racial identity because preliminary tests suggested that recipients would associate such messages with white nationalism.)
Things got more interesting when we analyzed responses to messages from women and racial or ethnic minority group members. When female or minority senders explicitly mentioned their identities, they were just more than 24 percent more likely to receive a response, compared with e-mails that had the same signature but did not mention identities. E-mails that mentioned identities received higher-quality replies, too: politicians wrote responses that were about 32 percent longer and about 39 percent more likely to offer to set up a phone call or meeting.
Strikingly, mentioning identity had the biggest benefit for Black men. Politicians were about 60 percent more likely to respond to messages from Black men when they asked councilmen to write back with “a few words of wisdom for a young Black man hoping to one day become a city councilor, like you.” This effect held regardless of the politicians’ ideological leaning or proximity to reelection. Moreover mentioning identity was just as likely to benefit women and members of racial or ethnic minority groups in cities that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 as in cities that voted for Hillary Clinton. And the effect persisted regardless of the city’s size, demographic diversity or wealth.
These effects extend beyond politicians. In another experiment, we sent 1,169 undergraduates at an Ivy League university an e-mail from a (fictitious) Black, male graduate student named Demarcus Rivers, who asked for help with his dissertation research. Regardless of the recipients’ gender, race or political leaning, when Demarcus described himself as “a Black man working towards a Ph.D.,” students were almost twice as likely to volunteer to help him.
Why is it so important to mention that you’re “a woman in STEM” or “a Black man pursuing a law degree”? Our research suggests that drawing attention to your marginalized identity or minority status reminds people on the receiving end of your message that bias could influence their decision-making. That reminder, in turn, may motivate them to monitor their own reaction more closely and behave more helpfully. Most Americans want to avoid appearing or feeling prejudiced, whether that avoidance is to uphold their values or reputation. Helping someone who explicitly identifies as part of an underrepresented or disadvantaged community feels like an opportunity to prove to yourself or others that you support women and racial and ethnic minority groups and are therefore not prejudiced. A rosy read of our results would be that people just need a little nudge to behave in line with their values.
But prejudice exists, and it does have negative effects on people’s professional lives. Work by other researchers suggests that women and members of racial minority groups whose name or curriculum vitae gives away their identity can benefit from hiding their gender or race when they are evaluated for a job. For example, one study found that Asian applicants fared better in U.S. job searches when they “Americanized” their name and interests, changing their name from “Lei” to “Luke,” for example, or citing popular Western hobbies such as snowboarding.
This finding might seem to contradict our research. But a more accurate interpretation is that these studies all point to the dangers of allowing one’s name alone to convey identity. Because sexism, racism and other forms of bias are all too common in the workplace, a signature that leaks your identity can trigger stereotypes that lead to discriminatory behavior. Concealing your identity can block the stereotyping process before it begins. Our work, meanwhile, offers another strategy to address the same problem. By highlighting your identity, you can prompt people to actively identify and suppress their potentially prejudiced responses.
The onus of reducing discrimination should not be on women and people of color. But in a world where inequity and bias are commonplace, having a tool to blunt these barriers may come in handy.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at firstname.lastname@example.org.