TIME WAS, prejudice was easy to recognize: The back of the bus. No Irish need apply. Not our kind of people, dear. People put their bias right out there, enshrining it in law and scribbling it on signs in shop windows for all the world to see.
Today, prejudice is different, more subtle. But it's still brutal. And just as in yesteryear, it still works as a weapon wielded by those in power and with privilege to keep others without, and out of places lots of us would like to be -- the corner offices of corporate America, for example. Skeptics looking for the persistence of prejudice need look no further than the Fortune 500, where 98 percent of CEOs and 95 percent of top earners are men, the overwhelming majority of them white. Our new study, published in the November issue of the Harvard Business Review, explains why.
Consider Penny Knoll. A platinum-grade talent with a Columbia MBA, labeled a ''high performer" in the early stretches of her career at a Fortune 500 company, Penny hit a wall in middle management. Senior colleagues professed themselves uncomfortable with her style, her gesticulating, her cornrows, her loud laughter. She tried to tone herself down and failed, and the years passed, and the stress of not getting promoted despite a stellar track record began to tell. She lowered her sights and disengaged. In her words: ''I quit, but stayed on the job."
She is not alone. Thousands of minority professionals have fallen victim to subtle forms of hidden bias in the large corporations that are in so many other ways the pride of our economy. Our new research, which features a nationally representative survey of 1,201 minority US managers, demonstrates how psychological hazards like ''style compliance" bar minorities from the executive suite.
42 percent of minority professional women in large corporations feel constrained by the white male model -- constantly editing themselves, engaged in the hopeless task of trying to look, sound, and act like white male executives. Thirty-four percent of minority men feel the same way.
Nearly a third of minority female executives fear that their speaking style and tone of voice label them as lacking leadership potential. Asians think they speak too softly to be considered CEO material; African-Americans think that they speak too loudly and are therefore seen as trouble-makers.
23 percent of minority female executives are concerned that their animated hand gestures are thought of as inappropriate. ''You can't imagine how often I sit on my hands at team meetings," said one Hispanic woman we interviewed.
19 percent of minority female professionals worry that their clothing (hairstyle or even manicure) stands out as being too ethnic or flamboyant. In the words of one African-American executive, ''Large earrings, the wrong nails -- stuff that wouldn't begin to attract attention on a white colleague -- makes me stand out like a sore thumb."
30 percent of minority professionals feel that promotion in their companies is based on appearance rather than merit.
The bottom line: 19 percent of minority professionals experience hidden biases severe enough to make them consider quitting. This is a wake-up call for companies. Since minorities comprise 30 percent of the highly qualified talent pool, hidden bias is a luxury few employers can afford.
Which is why we are seeing new action on this front. Leading-edge companies are beginning to design strategies that actively combat these forms of discrimination. Ernst & Young,
Tackling hidden bias is a daunting challenge. As Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji demonstrates with her diagnostic instrument, the Implicit Association Test, even the most well intentioned person is constantly stereotyping those with whom she/he interacts. But this is a challenge that employers have to take on if they are to survive and thrive in a global, multiracial world where ''talent" is increasingly nonwhite. A ''not our kind of people, dear" attitude is profoundly wrong, but it also happens to be hugely inefficient in 2005.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is president of the Center for Work Life Policy in New York and heads the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Cornel West is a professor of religion at Princeton University.