Hidden Bias

With an M.B.A. from Columbia University and a reputation as a top performer, Penny Knoll had ambitions of reaching the pinnacle of corporate success. But talent notwithstanding, Knoll found that other characteristics blocked her ascension to the top. She sports cornrows; laughs loudly; and, according to her boss, has an appearance and persona that undermines her leadership potential.

Knoll, a focus-group participant in a recent survey, is one of many black female professionals who says her career has been derailed by hidden bias — discrimination tied to characteristics such as hairstyles, tenor of speech, gestures, accents, and wardrobe. In fact, according to Leadership in Your Midst: Tapping the Hidden Strengths of Minority Executives, a study conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy, minority professionals in large corporations believe “style compliance” issues halt their career progress. Thirty-two percent worry that their employers may interpret their “quiet speaking style” as a sign of poor leadership skills. And 23% fear that co-workers perceive their “animated hand gestures” as less than appropriate, while 34% believe promotions are determined by appearance instead of performance.

“The fact is that companies have been relatively successful in getting women and minorities in the door, but they are not as successful as they would like in getting them up the ladder,” says Carolyn Buck Luce, co-author of the study and chair of the center’s Hidden Brain Drain task force. “Women and minorities are not advancing relative to their skills and abilities, in part because of hidden bias. That is why, after 30 years of corporate effort and legislation, they are still underrepresented at senior levels,”

According to Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization, women hold 50.3% of all management and professional positions, but make up less than 2% of CEOs at Fortune 500 and Fortune 1,000 publicly traded companies. For black women, the figures are dismal: they constitute a mere 1.1% of corporate officers and top earners. White males, on the other hand, make up 98% of CEOs and 95% of the top earners of the 500 largest publicly traded companies.

Katherine Giscombe, Catalyst’s senior director of research, agrees that hidden bias results in the exclusion of women of color, particularly black women, from influential networks and career-advancing assignments. “Lack of access to mentors is another major barrier for women of color, and bias certainly plays a part in that, too,” she adds.

It’s a sobering sentiment — particularly in an era when corporations tout their diversity programs and point with pride to a multicultural workforce. But outmoded diversity programs can’t combat what some call “the new face of discrimination.”

To fight hidden bias and, ultimately, advance one’s career, Giscombe says, black women must forge strong professional relationships within and outside their companies. Take stock of your ability as you move up within the organization and recognize that, at a certain point, it may be time to move on.

The corporations, however, that don’t seek to correct the practice of hidden bias will find their competitive strength greatly diminished. “In this global pool of multicultural talent, where only