Hidden Bias: Study Shows Women of Color Held Back by Discrimination

By Harris, Wendy | Black Enterprise, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Hidden Bias: Study Shows Women of Color Held Back by Discrimination


Harris, Wendy, Black Enterprise


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 comrows; 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. …

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Hidden Bias: Study Shows Women of Color Held Back by Discrimination
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