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A diverse group of people stand in front of a two-toned background. // Illustration by Sophia Lindstrom.

This story expands on reporting about a discrimination complaint filed by Amy Lam, an Asian American woman who applied for an associate professor position in Western’s design department that was ultimately offered to a white, male candidate out of a finalist pool of white candidates. Read the main story here.

By Mallory Biggar

In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, David Hekman and Stefanie Johnson, who were both associate professors at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, conducted a study about the likelihood of women or people of color being selected for a position when they are the only woman or person of color in the pool. 

This study finds that because 95% of CEOs are white men, status quo bias leads them to often prefer white men for positions, according to the article. However, when the status quo changed, so did the results. This research, and what Johnson and Hekman call the “two-in-the-pool” theory, found that when the majority of finalists for a position are similar in race or gender, one of them is more likely to get the job.

Johnson said she can’t remember how the team decided to research the topic, but what came to mind for her was a marketing term called the “decoy effect.” 

“Essentially, if you have two similarly priced, for example, televisions, and one that's way cheaper or way more expensive, there's a cognitive bias that tells you to pick from one of the two similar ones,” she said. 

This was the birth of Johnson and Hekman’s “two-in-the-pool” theory, she said. Johnson and Hekman’s study doesn’t simply apply to race or gender, but any identifying characteristic that sets one candidate apart from the rest. 

“We found that when a majority of the finalists were white (demonstrating the status quo), participants tended to recommend hiring a white candidate,” the article stated. “But when a majority of finalists were Black, participants tended to recommend hiring a Black candidate.”

Having diversity in hiring has both theoretical influence and real-world effects. According to Johnson and Hekman, it is impossible to have the best pool of applicants without diversity within the pool.

“If you don't have a diverse applicant pool, then you haven't done a great job of attracting the most talented slate of people,” Johnson said. “If all of your applicants are white men, you've missed out on approximately 70% of the population, which means you miss out on great talent. I think hiring on merit would actually mean that you do the work to get a diverse candidate slate.”

Hekman said he has been on many hiring committees as a professor, and oftentimes hiring committees base their decisions on personal connections. 

“That's the thing with professors; they hire their friends,” he said. “That's what 90% of hiring is — you hire somebody who you know.” 

For Hekman, diverse hiring means having a larger pool of candidates to hire from, and subsequently, the most qualified people for the position. 

“Diversity isn't about being nice,” Hekman said. “It's not about being fair. It's about winning. It's about better. Do you want LeBron James on your team? You want Michael Jordan? He's not white. Back in the old days, they only hired white men for basketball. We're way better now because we're sampling from 100% of the population, not just 30%. If you have homogeneity, it's a symptom that you do not have a meritocracy. ”


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