The internet promised many things upon is inception. To democratize knowledge by sending information to the farthest cornors of the earth, to shed light on the evils and corruption of governments, and to break down the barriers of gender, race, ethnicity, and religion. You could chat with people all over the world and they wouldn’t know your gender, your age, your race, whether you were fat or thin, tall or short. It was a golden era.
One would like to believe that for freelancers it still exists. Clients on Upwork, Guru, 99Designs and Freelancer.com are making their decisions based on a robust description of skills and past accomplishments. Certainly, their choices are based on rational facts, relevant statistics, valid assessments. Well, maybe not.
As the sharing economy evolved there was a drive to create a sense of instant trust. It led to the decline in online anonymity, which has introduced its own problems.
You’ll buy from an unknown retailer on Amazon because you can see the seller’s rating. On Amazon there are no photos, just facts. But, when you get to sites like Uber and Airbnb trust is created because you know up front the driver’s name and license plate, or you’ll rent someone’s private home because the host has a public identity, a woman in Los Angeles who loves to eat at the Jewish deli two blocks away. She looks perfectly nice in her profile photo.
We digital nomads of color face a different world when we travel the globe. Recent disclosures about bias on Airbnb reminded me that the world is far from fair and impartial. The bias that is attached to a face and a name can impact where a digital nomad can stay, and most importantly, opportunities for freelance work.
In #AirbnbWhileBlack: How Hidden Bias Shapes The Sharing Economy, the experiment run by researchers Michael Luca and his colleagues Benjamin Edelman and Dan Svirsky at Harvard Business School was explored. They sent out 6,400 requests to real AirBnb hosts in five major American cities—Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington.
All the requests were exactly the same except for the names they gave their make-believe travelers. Some had African American-sounding names like Jamal or Tanisha and others had stereotypically white-sounding names like Meredith or Todd.
Hosts were less likely to accept guests with African American sounding names. Researchers found discrimination across the board: among cheap listings and expensive listings, in diverse neighborhoods and homogenous neighborhoods, and with new hosts as well as experienced hosts. They also found that black hosts were also less likely to accept requests from guests with African American-sounding names than with white-sounding ones.
The findings are in line with the degree of racial discrimination found in other studies about who gets taxi tips or job call-backs or good rates on classified ads. Similar results have turned up on eBay. Black Americans even have trouble getting email responses from government officials.
The Airbnb experiment was modeled off a well-known study that found racial discrimination in the job market when they sent out resumés with black- and white-sounding names. The Airbnb study even used the same names: Tamika vs. Laurie, Darnell vs. Brad and more.
My partner and I noticed it immediately when we started using Airbnb with my profile. We changed to using her, she is White, and got much better results, internationally.
This unconscious discrimination isn’t harmless for either party. The researchers found that the discrimination was costly for hosts, a lesson that extends beyond Airbnb. Hosts who rejected a Black guest often never found a replacement customer for those same dates. As a result, the researchers calculated that individual instances of discrimination translated to forgoing about $65-$100 in revenue. Washington Post
What is Unconscious Bias?
It’s natural. It’s unintended. It can affect decisions. It can be mitigated.
Unconscious bias occurs when people favour others who look like them and/or share their values. For example, a person may be drawn to someone with a similar educational background, from the same area, or who is the same colour or ethnicity as them.
Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) offered a helpful description.
A manager who wasn’t successful at school may listen to, or be supportive of, an employee who left school without qualifications because, subconsciously, they are reminded of their younger self. The same can be true of a manager who is educated to degree level, favouring employees who have also been to university. This is known as affinity bias, because they feel an affinity with the person as they have similar life experiences.
And then there is the halo effect. This is where a positive trait is transferred onto a person without anything really being known about that person. For example, those who dress conservatively are often seen as more capable in an office environment, based purely on their attire. People notice behavior that reinforces the bias and ignore behavior that does not.
The story most commonly shared to explain the impact of unconscious bias is the transformation of symphony orchestras. Some brilliant artist suddenly realized men were being favored over women, and that perhaps the best musicians were not on the stage. The leading symphony orchestras started auditioning musicians behind a screen. A simple curtain doubled the talent pool and transformed what orchestras look like, says Iris Bohnet, a behavioural economist and professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Dear Clients – What about Steve Jobs?
An example of how this works in the work world is highlighted by a study from the job site Indeed, which discovered that bosses who attended a top-ranked college preferred to hire employees who also graduated from a prestigious institution. Specifically, 37 percent of managers who said they went to a top school said they like to hire candidates from highly regarded universities. That compares to just 6 percent of managers who didn’t attend a top school.
On the flip side, 41 percent of managers who didn’t graduate from a top-ranked college said they consider candidates’ experience more important when making hiring decisions. Just 11 percent of managers who did attend a prestigious school said the same.
Despite their desire to bring in employees from highly regarded schools, most managers agree that going to a highly rated school doesn’t translate into being a top performer. Just 35 percent of all of the bosses surveyed said top performers generally come from top schools. Instead, the managers surveyed said the ability to work well with others, strategic thinking, and self-direction are much more indicative of high performance.
Here unconscious bias works against the interest of the client or employer.
What’s a Freelancer to Do?
One step some companies are taking when hiring? Stripping resumes of names and other identifying information and assigning numbers. So perhaps that is something that freelancer websites should explore. Perhaps it should be standard to select an avatar that reflects how we view ourselves and have a name like Upwork Rising Star #106.
How Does Race and Ethnicity Affect Digital Nomads?
As I sit in the middle of Europe amid the emotionally inflamed dialog about immigration, being other and different in a new country resonates. When travel is part of your life, and sometimes part of your job, how does one cope?
While listening to a podcast about the current state of Venezuela I was confronted with my own unconscious bias. The host introduced her guest “back with Nicholas Casey, The New York Times Andes bureau chief, who’s based in Caracas, Venezuela and covers the region. He previously worked at The Wall Street Journal. He led the paper’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reported on the Arab Spring. He was also based in Mexico City for five years.”
And then the host asked:
I’m wondering if, in covering Latin American countries, as an African-American, if you’ve faced any kind of racism. Race is different in Latin America than it is in the United States. Are there any stereotypes that you have to confront? And how do racial issues compare, in the countries you’ve been in there, to the United States?
Casey was African American!
And, he had quite a bit to share on the topic, which I suggest you hear straight from him. Nicholas Casey Fresh Air Podcast
So Now That You Know What Are You Going To Do About It?
Change begins by just being aware that we have unconscious bias, because we all do. Focus on the positive behavior of people and not negative stereotypes. If you are an Airbnb host read the person’s review, and try to get past the name and the photo and the unconscious images that creates for you.
Another useful exercise is to imagine a positive contact with the group toward whom you may have a bias. Research has shown that simply visualizing a particular situation can create the same behavioral and psychological effects as actually experiencing it. For example, in tests, individuals who imagined a strong woman later showed less gender stereotyping than people who had imagined a vacation.
If you are an Airbnb user try a browser plugin called Debias Yourself that Airbnb users can install in Chrome to scrape names and photos off of the home-rental site. (“That isn’t quite what Airbnb intended,” the researchers explain of their plugin, “but it’s your computer, and it’s your right to configure it as you see fit.”)
Google has committed to tackle this problem in their own workforce and shares the unconscious bias training they have developed online. It’s free, it’s painless, why not try it.
If you want to test your on implicit bias, go straight to Project Implicit. Again it’s free; maybe not painless. Be Brave!
For realistic picture of what it means to Black in America, only one of the places I’ve experienced being Black, and after three years of international travel, by far the worst, take a look at When Whites Just Don’t Get It.
Fun fact discovered in my research. According to the U.S. census 90 percent of people with the last name Washington are black and 75 percent of those named Jefferson are black. Are founding fathers really got busy on their slave plantations.