ITHACA, N.Y. — Efforts to increase diversity in the workplace may really be having an effect when it comes to hiring. A new study finds being a woman or a member of a racial minority can make applicants more memorable and stand out from a crowd when there are few candidates of the same gender or race. However, researchers at Cornell University say the opposite is also true. When several others had the same background, they were more likely to be mistaken for someone else.
“Minority attributes can help memory, but they also lead to confusion,” says study author Michèle Belot, a professor at Cornell, in a university release. “There is this double edge to it: If I am the only woman or racial minority navigating social networks, that might actually be helpful to being remembered. But as soon as there are others, that’s not going to be the case anymore.”
The study started with checking the memories of participants in a pair of prominent economic conferences held in the United States and Scotland. Thirty-five percent of the attendants in the U.S. and 20 percent in Scotland were women. Additionally, 11 percent in the U.S. and 16 percent in Scotland were non-White.
A month after the conference, researchers followed up with nearly 90 percent of the guests to see how well they remembered who gave presentations. They were shown pictures of the presenters and asked to match the photos to the titles of their respective research papers. They also wrote down the person’s name and institution.
‘Gender and race are attributes that people encode very quickly’
Female presenters were more likely to be remembered than male presenters. Fourteen percent were correctly matched to their photo, but conference goers had trouble remembering more specific details such as their names or institutions.
Since there was only a small number of non-White presenters at these conferences, the study authors created controlled experiments to test a larger sample size. There were nearly 400 people who looked at photos from a database randomly paired with titles of economic papers. They were asked to then match names and titles in multiple choice questions.
Women were remembered far more often if they also belonged to a minority group. However, they became less memorable if the other choices were also women. Women and non-White people were more likely to be mixed up with others of the same gender or race when placed in the same situations.
“Gender and race are attributes that people encode very quickly about others,” Belot says. “But we demonstrate that they are not able to recall the exact person very well. They are more likely to confuse these people with others who share the same attributes.”
The findings are consistent with past research looking into how memory categorizes people based on minority attributes and how they are “blended together” when others share the same features. According to the study authors, their findings are the first evidence of bias when trying to remember professionally relevant information on people. The confusion and case of mistaken identity can open the door to discrimination. If a person’s race or gender causes employers to forget who they are, for example, it could hurt their chances of landing a job or other related business opportunities.
The study is published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics.