I have spent many years fighting against intentional civil rights violations in the workplace. Workplace discrimination is a terrible thing. It destroys careers, harms families, and is bad for the economy. And most people, I truly believe, are against it.
But what science is now showing us is that even very good, well-meaning people can discriminate at an unconscious level. According to this science, you are doing it right now as you read this.
You're faced with around 11 million pieces of information at any given moment, according to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The brain can only process about 40 of those bits of information and so it creates shortcuts and uses past knowledge to make assumptions.
So how do we deal with this information overload? Our brains compensate by making assumptions (aka "stereotypes") for everything...and everyone one we encounter. In other words, we are guided in our decision-making not just by the objective data we received but also by what we expect to be true. This can be an especially challenging problem for those who are trying to make hiring decisions in an ethical and unbiased manner. The hardest part of this is that we don't feel or believe that we are allowing bias to color our perceptions...but it does anyway.
This issue effects every company across the country and it is a serious problem that can only be addressed by actively discussing it and taking active steps to acknowledge and eliminate our unconscious biases. This Fast Company article discusses the problem and some tactics that we can all use to combat it. It's a good article and I commend it to your reading.
So if my biases are "unconscious" how can I do anything about them? After all, I don't even know I'm being biased right? Well, not exactly. We know you are being biased. We now know that we are all biased. So the remedy is to change the way we make decisions so that these unconscious biases are limited by the systems we design. Taking pictures, names, etc out of hiring materials so that initial hiring decisions (or interview lists) are made without knowledge of the candidates' demographic information is one simple example. Creating clear criteria for evaluating candidates before looking at their qualifications is another. More reliance on objective data and less reliance on your "gut" should be the goal.
The article discusses this in greater detail here. It is an important issue that I hope employers and HR specialists start to pay greater attention to.