In the late 1990s, Ali G shot to fame or notoriety, depending on where your sensibilities lie, with a comic routine in which he would react to perceived slights and injustices with the rhetorical question "Is it cos I is black?" As funny and hilarious as it was at the time, it served as a poignant example of life imitating art. 

Many of us involved in the fight for equality in the workplace are often far too quick to attribute the poor employment outcomes of some BAME communities to 'out-n-out' racism. Clearly racially inspired malice aforethought is part of the picture, but is in truth, only one of the many primary and secondary colours to be found (assuming one looks long enough) in the discrimination palette. This auto-blame response, though well-intentioned, probably only serves to play into the hands of those who zealously peddle the 'chip on your shoulder' rebuttal.      

Stereotype threat is one such primary colour and refers to a social psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something in a domain for which a negative generalisation about one's group applies. Although the research on stereotype threat within organisations focuses predominantly on race and gender, the broader literature on the subject also covers it's impact on elderly people, people living with disabilities, LGB and T groups and individuals from poorer socio-economic backgrounds.

Stereotype threat was first identified in 1995 (Steele & Aronson) in experiments which showed that black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardised tests than white students when their race was emphasised. When race was was not emphasised however, black students performed better and equivalently with white students.

Stereotype threat has also been found to occur in situations where being a token member of a minority group, can not only make the individual concerned feel as if he or she is representing an entire race or sex, but places them in a condition that increases significantly the importance of performing well, making the possibility of failure all the more foreboding.

Stereotype threat has been found to occur when the following conditions are in place:

(a) the task an individual is performing is relevant to stereotypes about the individual's group;

(b) the task is challenging;

(c) the individual is performing in a domain with which he or she identifies, and

(d) the context in which the task is being performed is likely to reinforce the stereotype(s)

Although the negative impact of stereotype threat on performance has been comprehensively documented, the mechanisms by which stereotype threat influences performance are less clear. It would appear that stereotype threat adversely impacts one's performance through a combination of factors, which probably include heightened physiological arousal, reduced working memory capacity, impaired self-regulation and lowered performance expectations.

So when an individual encounters a situation where there is a negative stereotype about his or her group, that individual will experience heightened arousal, which in turn diminsihes the cognitive resources available for performing the task at hand. This is irrespective of whether that task is a competency test as part of a selection process or simply an interview. Cognitive resources are tied up in self-regulatory thoughts such as task related worry and negative thoughts about one's performance, resulting in a cycle of lowered performance and self-expectations of performance.

The individual does not have to believe the stereotypes for them to influence his or her performance, or indeed even be consciously aware of knowing them. For example, when a female candidate or employee sees a role or assessment involving 'strategic thinking' (a domain where stereotypes and the reality of daily seeing only men in senior strategic positions, consciously and unconsciously suggests that men do better), this invokes a threat of confirming that stereotype, which in turn invokes anxiety, which then consciously or unconsciously interferes with and undermines the female candidate's ability to perform at her best for fear of confirming the stereotype.

Stereotype threat undermines performance both in role and in assessment processes, and is harmful to business as it reduces the performance of otherwise competent staff in key roles and job applicants in important assessments. Collectively, it undermines performance and hence productivity. Having staff and job applicants who are unwittingly not performing at their best, and who presumably are unaware of why this might be happening is clearly not just a diversity issue, it's very much a business issue.

So what can organisations do to alleviate stereotype threat? Well actually quite a lot! They can for example do the following: 

(i) Reframe the task or assignment

  • Selection and testing procedures should include a statement assuring candidates that the procedure accurately measures the actual requirements of the job in a way that is fair for all and entirely reliable.
  • Assessment, competency and test descriptors should avoid language which consciously or unconsciously, could invoke a stereotype threat.
  • Competency frameworks should be reviewed for language and imagery that could invoke a stereotype threat.

(ii) De-emphasise the threat

  • Demonstrate to candidates the practical provisions that have been put in place to ensure that any equalities monitoring information collected as part of the job-application process is properly quarantined and cannot be accessed by anyone involved in the selection process. Words without firm evidence are unlikely to provide this assurance.
(iii) Encourage self-affirmation
  • At the outset of a selection or assessment procedure, candidates should be allowed the opportunity to emphasise their wider KSAPs and how these may relate to the role or organisation.
  • Use a similar task for assessors to highlight their objectivity and fairness.
  • Within selection briefings and within the assessment system, explicitly seek to develop a more complete description of the candidate.

(iv) Emphasise high standards with assurances about capability

  • Ensure that the materials used, and the feedback given at each stage of the assessment process, highlights the high standards expected, encourages candidates to meet these standards and emphasises their absolute capacity to do so.

(v) Provide credible role models both in role and assessment

  • Marketing materials should include positive, competent and credible role imagery which may highlight career achievement through an individual's successes and abilities whilst demonstrating the employer's commitment to inclusion and diversity.

(vi) Provide external attributions for difficulty

  • Briefing of candidates should include statements indicating that anxiety induced by the assessment process is not unusual and may in fact be beneficial.
  • Briefing of minority or non-dominant group candidates should also include an explicit reference to stereotype threat and the steps that the organisation has taken to reduce it.

(vii) Emphasise the importance of effort and motivation in assessment

  • Positive action programmes should encourage an incremental thinking style (i.e. effort and hardwork yield incremental improvements in ability) around the dimensions of assessment.
  • Selection procedure instructions should emphasise the learning & developmental aspect of both the selection process and the target role.

So, to answer the question posed in the title, "Is it because I'm black? The answer in my humble opinion is, yes and no! Whether direct discrimination is present or not, in a given scenario is only one of the many questions which need to be asked. The fact remains that the workplace is a breeding ground for stereotypes and stereotype threat. Stereotype threat after all, is a physiological response to evaluations, which are an ever-present hazard of organisational life. What I believe we need to do collectively, as employers, employees and candidates is to try to better understand how minorities experience and cope with stereotype threat, which in my view will not only help to foster a more diverse and inclusive work environment, but will also contribute to a much needed reduction in the employment disparities experienced by ethnic minorities. 

About the author

Glanville Einstein Williams, Diversity & Inclusion Specialist