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Check Your Bias at the Career Center Door

The career services profession currently lacks adequate training opportunities for working with diverse student populations. As a result, career services professionals may carry with them un-examined implicit biases, unknowingly doing harm to underrepresented students. Diverse career center staff often find themselves pigeonholed, assigned to liaise only with student groups whose ethnic identity they share. Too often as leaders, we unconsciously hire staff that look like us, talk like us, and think like us – stifling innovation for the sake of preserving the status quo.

University career centers are becoming increasingly involved in efforts to attract and enroll students. At Loyola Marymount University, the Career and Professional Development office reports through Enrollment Management, ensuring prospective students are aware of our programs, people, and resources as soon as the admission cycle begins. The campus tour starts at the career center, post-graduate outcomes can be found on the university homepage, and all first-year students take the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment prior to arriving – ensuring they begin college with basic knowledge about their individual strengths. This type of model is being adopted across the U.S., at institutions such as UC Riverside, DePaul, the University of Chicago, and others. Many career center reporting lines are shifting to enrollment management.

These changes mean that most students are far more aware of the career development process earlier in their college career, but the playing field remains unbalanced; underrepresented students are at risk of getting lost in the shuffle.

“The percentage of American college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, and American Indian/Alaska Native has been increasing. From 1976 to 2013, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 4 to 16 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 to 6 percent, the percentage of Black students rose from 10 to 15 percent, and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students rose from 0.7 to 0.8 percent. During the same period, the percentage of White students fell from 84 to 59 percent.”

National Center for Education Statistics

U.S. Department of Education (2016)

Just as the population of students we serve has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, we in the career services field must also change to adapt to their needs. Effectively supporting underrepresented student career development requires changing the way we think, hire, and organize our teams.

Understand Your Biases

Cultivating diverse career services leaders requires a close examination of our own implicit biases. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity defines implicit bias as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.”

Everyone has implicit biases, and if left unexamined, they can have lasting negative effects – on our teams and also on the diverse students we aim to serve. Unexamined bias in a career center setting could lead to the following:

  • A well-meaning career coach with an unconscious racial bias inadvertently steers a student toward career interests stereotypically associated with the student’s race.

  • Seeking to hire a technology support specialist, a seasoned career center director eliminates an older candidate from the applicant pool based on unconscious assumptions about the candidate’s technology savvy – or lack thereof.

  • A career center manager promotes a team member to a leadership position based on unconscious associations between the individual’s gender and their motivation or drive.

So how can we as career services professionals get to the bottom of our own implicit bias?

In 1998, three scientists founded the Harvard-based Project Implicit, developing over a dozen, free, online implicit association tests (IATs) designed to educate the public about their own hidden biases while providing a “virtual laboratory” for data collection. The IATs measure a variety of unconscious preferences, including age, weight, disability, skin tone, gender, sexuality, and race. Taking an IAT immediately sheds light on where one’s bias falls, and often surprises people. For instance, it is not uncommon for underrepresented individuals to have a preference against their own group, since implicit bias is often the result of both positive and negative stereotypes that are reinforced by societal images we take in everyday – in the news, on television, through film, and so on.

Last fall LMU embarked on a university-wide, three-year Presidential initiative designed to introduce strategies for mitigating implicit bias. All senior leadership participated in the initial on-campus training, which will eventually be administered to all faculty, staff, and students through LMU’s Office of Intercultural Affairs. The Kirwan Institute at The Ohio State University helped facilitate the training.

Efforts to support underrepresented students and cultivate diverse leadership start with understanding our own implicit biases and how they impact our work with students and colleagues.

Retrain Your Brain

Once we have identified our biases, the next step is to retrain our brains to think differently – especially about the groups we frequently associate with negative stereotypes.

Implicit biases are learned, but they can also be unlearned through a variety of de-biasing techniques. For instance, we are often exposed passively to a barrage of negative stereotypes in the media about specific ethnic groups. Over time, this repetitive exposure can unconsciously affect the way we view ethnically underrepresented individuals, including our own students or team members. By choosing to expose ourselves to positive images of the group – especially counter stereotypes that challenge our unconscious perceptions – we can begin to mitigate the potential negative consequences of our implicit bias.

So how might we retrain our brains to focus on the positive versus negative stereotypes?

One answer is to increase our contact with stigmatized groups in order to counter the stereotype. We can start by:

  • Attending campus gatherings hosted by student or faculty groups that look different than ourselves, especially if we have previously self-identified a negative implicit bias toward the group through an implicit association test.

  • Highlighting for our students the positive aspects of a stigmatized group by organizing a career networking event comprised of high-achieving underrepresented alumni.

  • Practicing counter-stereotype associations whenever possible, affirming positive associations with the various student, faculty, or staff groups we encounter.

Over time these strategies will help us begin to disassociate underrepresented groups with negative stereotypes through de-biasing exercises.

Hire Collaboratively

Many of us in the career services profession have long realized the benefits to collaborative hiring. Involving stakeholders from academic departments across campus helps to ensure healthy information sharing and collaboration between faculty and career center staff down the road. Collaborative hiring also helps to ensure a bias-free process when it comes to building our teams.

Erin Engstrom, outreach manager for Recruiterbox, identifies five cognitive biases that often appear in our decision-making around hiring:

  1. Confirmation bias: a tendency to seek information that confirms our views

  2. Ingroup bias: an inclination to favor members of our own group

  3. Projection bias: an assumption that others have priorities similar to ours

  4. Selective perception: perceiving what we want while taking in information, and ignoring aspects that contradict our expectations

  5. Status quo bias: a preference for things to stay the same

Given the current state of career services – constant pressure to meet student demands while under the microscope of university administrators, parents, and alumni – hiring managers often attempt to fill career center vacancies as fast as possible. The temptation to keep hiring committees small and focused only within the center is real and often seen as expedient. But in exchange for expediency, we risk bringing our own biases along with us into the hiring process.

Avoid Assumptions

Assembling a diverse career services team is critical to understanding and supporting the students we serve. But our work must not stop there. The question for those of us in leadership roles remains: how can we better support our diverse team members in their leadership development?

This is perhaps the simplest step: avoid making assumptions about our team members.

Ethnically underrepresented career coaches may have natural affinities for the student, employer, or alumni populations that share their identity, but seldom do they want their work to be confined only to this population. Career center directors should avoid making assumptions about the personal interests of underrepresented team members, especially if those assumptions are based primarily on their identity.

Career center leaders should find ways to empower diverse employees to tackle university-wide projects, introducing them to a broader audience than simply those that look like them. At LMU’s career center, a dedicated position with the sole responsibility to oversee campus partnerships was created. This director role continually assesses the needs of our campus partners, matching them with the interests and expertise of the career center staff. While some of the 30 plus partnerships center around underrepresented student needs, we avoid making assumptions about team members’ interests based solely on their shared identity with diverse student groups.

What Next?

Recognizing our own biases is a beginning, not an end. As our student populations grow more and more diverse, we in the career services field need to think differently about underrepresented students and our own team members – seeing the potential in each and every one of them. By recognizing our biases, we can choose to expose ourselves and our teams to counter-stereotypes that emphasize the positive in underrepresented groups. By setting aside arcane ways of hiring, we can maximize our team’s potential to reach underrepresented students. They are counting on us.

Branden joined Loyola Marymount University as Associate Provost in June 2015, where he leads the university's Career and Professional Development initiative. In this role he oversees the office responsible for successfully launching undergraduate and graduate students into their professional careers. Over 90% of LMU graduates are employed, enrolled in graduate school, or pursuing post-graduate service or military within six months of graduation. Twitter. LinkedIn.

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