Career Advice

Managing Bias in the Job Search Process

Dr. John Vasquez

You might think that I, a Career Development professional who has held six different positions over the past 20 years, would be someone who loves to interview. I do. However, as a first-generation, openly gay, Latino male with a Ph.D. in education who works in STEM fields, I have found myself wary when interviewing with science faculty, research-intense industries, or some combination of both. This “wariness” does not have anything to do with imposter syndrome. Instead, it comes from a genuine concern about bias that exists in today’s work environment, specifically unconscious bias.

I clearly remember one position I interviewed for where I felt everything was going well, and I had been given opportunities to talk about myself and disclose any kind of information I wanted. I know at some point I had disclosed information about my sexual orientation and about my partner. One of the interviewers pulled me aside and said, “You know this is a pretty conservative area of the state, right? This is a good place to work, and most of the bosses are okay, but not everyone here is as inclusive.”

That comment did give me pause. It made me think, “Do I really want to work here?” Granted, I hadn’t outed myself to everyone I had met, but for the most part, everyone had seemed really nice and welcoming.

As individuals, we all have social identities. These identities relate to how we see ourselves in relation to others based on what we have in common. For example, we can identify ourselves according to age, dis(ability), ethnicity, gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, social class, and much more.

When looking for a job, it can be hard to figure out whether a place is welcoming to any and all of the social identities you hold. Sometimes people are even unaware of their biases. This is called unconscious bias; it is bias that we are unaware of, which happens automatically, and which is usually triggered by our brains making quick judgements and assessments of people and the environment around us. It is typically influenced by our background, culture, and personal experiences. Unconscious bias permeates many organizations, not just colleges and universities; it can happen all the time and during any phase of the hiring process, even among hiring managers who say they care about diversity.

After working for more than a decade, I went back to school to pursue a Ph.D. so I could advance in my field. I knew there were many people from underrepresented minorities (faculty, students, and staff) like me in academia who were facing issues in advancing, so I focused my research on them. Specifically, I researched the psychosocial factors affecting the career trajectories of female scientists in graduate education and postdoctoral training: What messages do women in science get from their advisers, mentors, PIs, departments, and societies in their disciplines? How do those messages impact the way they move through their careers? What I discovered confirmed my intuition and what others have found:

  • Some women, especially women of color, had a problem just getting in the door (of a grad program, a lab, or a job interview).
  • Some female scientists went on interviews and were told, “We work a lot of hours around here, so there’s no time for anyone to have a personal life.” Some women took this as a “backdoor way” of implying that if they wanted to get married or have children, it would be frowned upon.
  • For others, it wasn’t getting into the lab where they ran into bias; it was after they started. In some heavily male-dominated labs, even those where “everyone was nice,” women were the ones taking notes, cleaning up eating areas, and helping to put on the events. Oftentimes, the female scientists were also the ones being left out of informal occasions, such as weekly happy hours and get-togethers.

What was interesting was that, for the most part, many of these women didn’t think their experiences were the fault of any single individual. Instead, they attributed them to the way society—and science in particular—works. A lot of how people act, think about, and interact with others is done unconsciously, which is why unconscious bias is so hard to deal with. However, the women I spoke with also gave some great advice about how they went about navigating bias as they moved through their careers.

Know What’s Important to You

One participant said that regardless of who you are or identify with, the first thing you need to do before going into the job market is ask yourself what is most important about YOU, specifically your social identities, that you feel need to be accepted and supported in your next position. What this means is, in your next position do you care whether:

  • You’re the only woman or person of color on the team or in the office?
  • You’re the only international person or person from a specific nationality?
  • You’re a single parent who likes to take the weekends off to be with your kids, even though everyone in the lab where the job is has talked about always needing to be at work?
  • You live with an invisible health condition (e.g., depression) that makes it hard to socialize with others?

For other people, benefits like family leave are also important, but they are often very nuanced. Many organizations have these policies. But what do they cover? For example, if you were part of a straight, heterosexual couple expecting a baby, it might be important for the organization you work for to have a family leave policy for both the mother and the father. However, if you were adopting, would you still get the same benefit? How would the policies apply to same-sex couples? Also, what if you needed to take time away to take care of an elderly parent with health issues or another family member? Most people don’t think about these facets of their lives until something happens. Knowing what parts of your identity are important to you, or may become important in the future, is especially critical as you make the next move. It can help you set up your strategy regarding which questions to ask and how to engage in the job search process.

Assess the Organizations You Want to Work With

Knowing what’s important to you is helpful, especially as you get to the next step in my study participant’s advice. That is to assess the organization, not just the department or unit you are applying to, for both diversity and inclusivity. Many institutions and companies have Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Statements and Commitments on their websites that talk about how they value diversity. But how many of their employees, and especially their hiring managers, actually believe and follow through with those commitments?

In graduate school, many students from minorities underrepresented in STEM attend institutions known for their commitment to diversity. Yet these individuals still talk about the many instances where they’ve had to deal with bias incidents and microaggressions.1 Unfortunately, a lot of these incidents result from unconscious bias because of the way people carry assumptions and hold stereotypes in their minds about others without even being aware of it.

Whether you are applying for a job in academia or trying to break into industry, many organizations have diversity statements, but that doesn’t mean they are diverse or value diversity. Therefore, aside from just looking to see if they have a diversity statement, look at how they articulate their diversity goals. For instance:

  • What are some of the values, if any, that they describe when promoting diversity?
  • What programs or events are offered to promote inclusion?
  • What benefits and resources do they offer to support employees, such as those with families? For instance, do they give paid time off or leave for both new mothers and new fathers, or time off to take care of sick parents?
  • What kinds of networks or resources do they offer to underrepresented (e.g., multicultural, gender, disability, returning veteran, or LGBTQA+) groups?

Also, look to see if they have a strategic plan focused on D&I and assess for yourself whether you think their efforts sound sincere. Many strategic plans will include information that you may find useful, such as:

  • Current data on employee diversity.
  • Groups the organization considers underrepresented.
  • Plans for increasing the hiring, promotion, and tenure of diverse populations.

Interview the Hiring Manager, Department, or Unit for “Fit”

When searching for a potential hire, employers are always looking for someone who is “the right fit” for their organization. If joining an inclusive team is important to you, assess them the same way. Ask them questions that can give you a sense of how they might treat employees and address issues that are important to you. For example, you can start with some general questions about diversity, such as:

  • How do you promote inclusivity on your team?
  • How do you empower members of your team to be successful?
  • How do you ensure that employees bring their “whole selves” to work?
  • How do you engage in building a community?
  • What kinds of diversity training or other types of cultural competency training—such as unconscious bias training—do you offer, and how do you encourage employees to participate?

Although the organization as a whole may have legal nondiscrimination clauses, look at the actual environment you will be working in to assess how well it embodies these beliefs. For example, if the organization is committed to work–life balance and being family friendly, when you go on your in-person interview, look at the office spaces around you to see whether people actually display pictures of family members on and around their desks. Don’t be afraid to ask hiring managers questions along the lines of:

  • What kind of social activities do team members or colleagues engage in to build community?
  • Are employees encouraged to bring their families, including children and same-sex partners, to social events or office celebrations?

This is not an all-encompassing list or process for navigating bias in hiring, especially unconscious bias. One reason it’s really hard to address the problem is because it’s unconscious. Hiring managers may not realize they are even acting on their biases, especially those who believe they are inclusive toward different identities. Unfortunately, this means it’s up to job seekers to advocate for themselves and make sure they ask the right questions to assess whether the organization is the right fit for them.

After graduating (or finishing a postdoc), many of you, like me, just want to find a job where you feel both productive and valued. So, besides just looking for diversity statements on a prospective employer’s website, make sure you take the time to assess how the organization defines, values, and promotes diversity to see whether the job really is a good fit for you.

1 Truong, K. A.; Museus, S. D. Responding to racism and racial trauma in doctoral study: An inventory for coping and mediating relationships. Harvard Educational Review, 2012,  82(2), 226–254, 326.