Best networking and interview skills won’t help when you are faced with prejudice
Despite all the laws on equal opportunities when you are job hunting, says Frances Mensah Williams, the best networking and interview skills in the world won’t help you when you are faced with prejudice. Ethnic minority groups have become better represented at universities but, according to a new report, these young people are finding it more difficult to get jobs than white groups.
According to the Race for Opportunity campaign, despite being highly represented at UK universities - one in six UK university students are from a black, Asian or other minority ethnic background - these graduates are failing to find employment as easily as their white counterparts. In fact, 56.3% of minority students who graduated in 2007-08 found work within a year compared with 66% of white students.
Nothing surprising there, you might think – racism is still alive and well despite our best efforts to eradicate it or pretend otherwise. But a comment by Dr Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust, suggesting that “such students still too often lack either the networks or confidence to enter certain professions and may not have the support they need to develop the necessary attributes” is what got me rather more hot and bothered.
The Name Game
Black students born and raised in the UK who have successfully navigated their way through school and university, leaving with grades on a par with their peers have, I would argue, no natural propensity to lack confidence. If, indeed, a lack of confidence arises, it is when intelligent confident students find, time after time, that their hard earned qualifications and extracurricular achievements cut no ice with employers who are predisposed to avoid hiring them.
New analysis from the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) shows that almost half (48%) of Black people aged between 16 and 24 in the UK are now unemployed – compared to the rate of unemployment among white young people which stands at 20%. ippr’s analysis also shows that mixed ethnic groups have seen the biggest overall increases in unemployment, rising from 21% in March 2008 to 35% in November 2009.
Are we so sure that this is about a lack of networks and confidence and not about a systemic hindrance to equality?
The issue is not confined to the UK. A recent US study showed that black graduates are struggling harder in the American job market relative to their white counterparts in this downturn. According to figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for black male college graduates 25 and older in 2009 has been nearly twice that of white male college graduates - 8.4% compared with 4.4%.
Even Asian and Hispanic managers tended to hire more whites and fewer blacks than Black managers did, according to a study published this year in The Journal of Labor Economics.
Recent studies have shown how some recruiters and employers collude to exclude minority students from the workplace. Investigations carried out by the British government using fake CVs with foreign sounding names revealed that foreigners (or those whose names imply that they are) are far less likely to get an interview, never mind a job.
The name game is also a feature of the US employment market, as evidenced by a study published several years ago in The American Economic Review titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” This found that applicants with black-sounding names received 50% fewer responses to their applications than those with white-sounding names.
While laws exist to deal with provable cases of discrimination, many of those surveyed pointed out that the discrimination is rarely overt, with “surprised looks and offhand comments” when the interviewer actually met them, as well as truncated interviews and a sudden lack of interest telling its own tale.
Having the confidence level of Simon Cowell offers no protection against these attitudes.
The Fame Game
When some minorities attain a high profile, it can prove a double-edged sword for others of that race. Of course you can make it, many will cry. Just look at Lewis Hamilton, or Oprah Winfrey, or the President of the United States.
But, as Bob Herbert, the African-American columnist for the New York Times wrote, “The election of a black president may have been important to African-Americans for myriad reasons, but it hasn’t done much for their bottom line, which continues to deteriorate.”
Black Americans, he says, “are bearing a disproportionate burden of joblessness. Communities of color are being crushed economically and the national news media have not fully focused on the carnage. The official unemployment rate for blacks is 16.2 percent and could well pass 17 percent before the year is out. The real jobless rate is far more ghastly.”
What could high confidence levels have achieved against this tide of relentless exclusion?
The Stereotype Game
And then, of course, there’s the stereotype game. Knowing people have a negative perception of you based on a stereotype can throw anyone off.
When acclaimed US social psychologist Dr. Claude Steele tried to make sense of the fact that the national college dropout rate for Black students was 20 to 25% higher than that for whites, even when those students were just as well-prepared for college, had no socioeconomic disadvantages and managed to get excellent SAT scores, his research threw up some interesting results.
According to Steele, one of the major barriers holding back the achievement of black people and other underrepresented groups is a phenomenon he calls “stereotype threat,” the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype.
In his book, “Whistling Vivaldi,” Steele talks about the research studies he has conducted over the past 20 years to test his theory on stereotype threat and the role it plays in academic achievement and underachievement among blacks and women.
In essence, Steele’s theory is that black people face the constant threat of being considered racially inferior. Knowing this stereotype causes black students to quickly learn that succeeding will be difficult. This anxiety about being judged stereotypically, he says, particularly when that stereotype is negative, can seriously hinder performance.
In one study, Steele asked two groups of black and white college students to take a 30-minute test made up of questions from the verbal section of the Graduate Record Examination. When one group was told that the test would measure their intellectual ability, black students underperformed dramatically. But when another group was told the test could not measure intellectual ability, Blacks and whites performed at virtually the same level.
“When you feel under threat, you know that based on an identity you have, something bad could happen,” says Steele. “You don’t know whether in fact it will happen. You don’t know precisely what could happen or when or where it could happen. It’s like having a snake loose in the house. It’s a terrible feeling. When you are in this situation, most of your cognitive resources are devoted to vigilance.”
Steele said this anxiety often manifests itself in psychological and physiological ways, including distraction, increased body temperature and increased heart rate, all of which diminish performance levels.
“If you care about what you are doing, the prospect of being judged is upsetting and distressing and disturbing,’’ he said.
So, is unemployment among black students a lack of confidence or a systemic assault of negative energy on an otherwise healthy ego?
The Blame Game
When it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck and nothing else. No-one doubts the value of networking when it comes to finding a job. But a lack of confidence is what I would take issue with.
Because, as numerous studies prove, when all the variables such as networking skills and the choice of university are put aside, sometimes not succeeding is just down to plain old racism.
Much as there is a lot people can do to improve their chances of finding a good job, there comes a time when all the networking and interview skills in the world come to nought if you are facing a bigot. For these unlucky applicants, it’s not a question of networks or confidence but skin colour and the wrong name. It then becomes too easy to blame these people for the plight in which they find themselves.
Frances Williams is the Chief Executive of Interims for Development, a Human Resources and Training consultancy and Editor of ReConnect Africa.com (www.reconnectafrica.com) an online careers and jobs publication for African professionals around the world.