When seeking help, women and racial/ethnic minorities benefit from explicitly stating their identity

Women and racial and ethnic minorities are found to benefit from mentioning their demographic identity in help requests.

Introduction

Women and racial/ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in many organizational contexts in the United States, particularly in leadership positions. One contributing factor is that bias and discrimination can cause underrepresented group members to receive less instrumental help, including advice, feedback, and assistance on work-related tasks.

Although past research indicates that people from marginalized groups face discrimination when seeking help or pursuing career advancement, the authors propose that women and racial/ethnic minorities might benefit from explicitly stating their demographic identity.

In this paper, the authors examine whether women and racial/ethnic minorities are more likely to receive instrumental help when they explicitly mention their demographic identity in a request for support (e.g., “As a Black woman…”). The authors hypothesized that explicitly mentioning one’s marginalized demographic identity in a request for career-related help would make salient the potential for bias and trigger motivations to respond without prejudice. These motivations may, in turn, increase prospective helpers’ willingness to provide support to women and racial/ethnic minorities.

The study (n=5,145) consists of two field experiments and one online experiment to test the authors’ hypothesis. Help requests for the two field experiments were made via email. In the first field experiment, potential helpers were randomly assigned to receive emails from either majority or minority group members and from requestors who either did or did not mention their demographic identity in a 2x2 design. In the second field experiment, all requestors were minority group members and potential helpers were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one that received an email where the requester mentioned their underrepresented identity, or another one where the e-mail did not mention the requester’s underrepresented identity.

Findings

Deliberately mentioning identity in requests for help can improve outcomes for women and racial/ethnic minorities.

  • City councilors were 24.4% (7.42 percentage points) more likely to respond to help-seeking emails from women and racial/ethnic minorities when the sender explicitly mentioned their demographic identity. Dominant group members (i.e., White men) did not benefit from mentioning their gender identity (i.e., by saying “As a man…”).
    • City councilors wrote 31.8% more words and 46.6% more characters in response to women and racial/ethnic minorities when their emails mentioned their demographic identity.
  • Undergraduate students were 79.6% (2.73 percentage points) more likely to volunteer to help a Black male graduate student when his request for help explicitly included his demographic identity.
  • Prospective helpers’ internal motivation to respond without prejudice was tied to an increased willingness to help marginalized group members when they explicitly mentioned their demographic identity.

Future studies might explore other outcomes, such as the psychological consequences help seekers experience after mentioning their demographic identity. They might also explore whether external motivation to control prejudice plays a stronger role in driving decisions made publicly or in groups. Moreover, future research could explore other potential mechanisms for the effect of mentioning identity, such as increases of the perceived impact of help provided, or prospective helpers’ desire to behave altruistically.

Methodology

The article presents results from two field experiments and one online experiment.

Study 1

Participants were 2,476 White male city councilors serving in cities across the United States. Each city councilor received an email from a fictitious student requesting career advice. The emails were identical across conditions except for two randomized elements: (1) whether the help-seeking student was a White male help seeker or a minority help seeker (that is, a White female, Black male, Black female, Latino, or Latina); and (2) whether the student explicitly mentioned their identity in the email (calling themselves a ‘young man/woman/Black man/Black woman/Latino/Latina’) or not (instead, calling themselves a ‘young person’). The dependent variable of interest was whether a city councilor replied to the email within one week.

Study 2

Participants were a demographically diverse group of 1,169 undergraduate members (69.5% non-White, 65.7% female) of the behavioral lab participant pool at an East Coast university. All Study 2 participants received an email from the behavioral lab containing a forwarded request for research help from a fictitious graduate student named Demarcus Rivers (a name chosen to signal a Black male demographic identity). The email was identical across conditions except for one randomized element: in the identity mentioned condition, Demarcus’ request included an explicit mention of his demographic identity (“As a Black man…”), while in the identity not mentioned condition, his email did not mention his demographic identity (“As someone…”). The dependent variable of interest was whether undergraduates volunteered to help Demarcus by providing their contact information.

Study 3

In Study 3, researchers relied on an online scenario paradigm to explore whether the response to a help request may be correlated with people’s increased internal and external motivations to respond without prejudice when a help seeker explicitly mentions their demographic identity.

Participants were 1,500 adults recruited through Prolific. Participants were asked to imagine being a Computer Science instructor tasked with choosing one out of four former students to refer to a prestigious conference. They read emails from each of the four candidates requesting a referral before ranking their willingness to refer each student. Because only one student could receive a referral, ranking a student as no. 1 was equivalent to choosing to help that student by giving them a referral. One of the four students was a Black man. Participants were randomly assigned to either the identity mentioned condition, in which the Black male student explicitly highlighted his demographic identity in his email, or the identity not mentioned condition, in which he did not. Participants ranked the four candidates from the one they were most likely to refer (no. 1) to the one they were least likely to refer (no. 4). After making their decisions, participants responded to items from two scales: one intended to measure the extent to which internal motivation to respond without prejudice influenced their decision, and one intended to measure the extent to which external motivation to respond without prejudice influenced their decision. The dependent variable of interest was the ranking participants assigned to the Black student.

Intersectionality

Related GAP Studies