Discrimination against minorities and women — whether in housing, education, or employment — is a complex, long-standing phenomenon with origins that are not clear-cut. For organizational psychologists like Professor Modupe Akinola, understanding the conditions under which discrimination is more likely to occur is an important research priority, and one that can help individuals and firms curb the incidence of bias.
Inspired by the work of Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman, Akinola, with Katherine Milkman of Wharton and Dolly Chugh of NYU, investigated how temporal distance affects the tendency to discriminate. Trope and Lieberman have shown that decision makers faced with choices in the immediate future focus on the practical details and feasibility of the choice, quickly assessing how, when, and whether something can be done. In contrast, distant future events trigger a more abstract thought process — decision makers think less about the practical aspects of a decision and instead focus on why they might chose a particular course of action.
The researchers hypothesized that more abstract — and subjective and judgmental — thought processes might trigger stereotyping and lead to discrimination in organizational settings. They predicted that when decision makers faced a choice about a distant future event, such as meeting with an individual in one week, the choice would trigger an abstract mode of thinking causing professors to question why the meeting should occur rather than whether the meeting should occur. Thus, a meeting request from a woman or person of color might evoke stereotypes.
Using academia as their laboratory allowed the researchers to focus on a field in which there are many systematic, institutional efforts to increase the representation of minorities and women, and where there is some, if limited, diversity in terms of faculty members.
Additionally, the researchers thought that on a subtle, unconscious level the presence of relatively few minorities and women in academia might give credence to the idea that they don’t do well in that environment. “If we just look at the representation of women and minorities in academia, it’s pretty clear why some stereotypes about women and minorities might reign,” Akinola says.
The academic setting also gave the researchers a large sample size. The researchers contacted 6500 professors from 6300 doctoral programs at the top 260 US universities, noting their race, academic rank, gender, and e-mail address. Each professor received a single e-mail request for a short meeting from a fictitious prospective doctoral student. Some of the requests were for meetings that same day, a Monday, while other requests were for the following Monday. The twenty fictitious prospective students had names that were highly likely to signal a gender and ethnicity, whether Caucasian, Latino, African-American, Indian, or Chinese.
When a student requested a meeting that same day, professors replied to all students at about the same rate and accepted or rejected the requests for same-day meetings at about the same rate, regardless of the race or gender of the student. But when students requested a meeting for the following week, presumed white men were granted meetings with faculty members 26 percent more often than presumed women and minorities. The white male names also received more and faster responses than women and minorities, the researchers found.
Importantly, minority professors who received a request from a student of their own race still displayed the temporal discrimination effect. “Every single minority group studied showed this temporal discrimination trend,” Akinola says. “There are some ethnicities that are viewed as model minorities in some ways, but people of all ethnicities still view or respond to minorities differently than white males.”
In past studies, it’s been unclear in which fields discrimination is more likely to occur. In a related study that analyzed these response rates by field, Akinola and her co-researchers found that in business, education, human services, and health sciences professors were less likely to respond to women and minorities than those in fields such as social sciences and humanities, as were professors in private (compared to public) institutions and in higher paying disciplines.
Taken together, the current studies provide more evidence about who is more likely to discriminate and show that context matters. Any organization that must hire and manage a workforce, Akinola says, needs to understand and be attentive to the subtle influence temporal distance can have on decision making. Especially given that many organizations are trying to increase diversity within their ranks, leaders must consider the role temporal distance might play in, for example, deciding which candidates to interview, making sure to examine their processes to identify aspects that may make it more likely for decision makers to discriminate.
“We are all susceptible to stereotypes entering our calculus,” Akinola says. “Sometimes we forget that something as subtle as when someone is asking to meet with you can make a difference. Now that we know this, we can consider how that might influence our responses.”
Modupe Akinola is assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.