It’s crunch time for college applications—which means that right now, in one essay prompt after another, gatekeepers of sprawling state campuses and small liberal arts institutions alike are asking students to define how they’d add to a school’s diversity.
Consider the first option on the Common Application, used by more than 900 schools to determine admissions: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
In its application, Macalester College has taken things a step further, saying two of its core values “are Multiculturalism and Internationalism and one way we try to live these values is providing students space to express their identities ‘beyond a check box.’” One college essay consultant offers ideas on how applicants can elaborate on the “nuances” of their background: “Has your family lived in the same town for multiple generations? Maybe you’re the first person in your family to go to college. Maybe you were raised by your mother and grandmother.”
Now consider how we evaluate applicants for jobs—and how frequently the idea of diversity is reduced to the checking of boxes Macalester describes. That is, if candidates broach it at all.
LinkedIn and resumes and personal websites are carefully crafted to focus on skills and quantifiable successes over elements of a person’s identity. As a hiring manager who wants to center Black and brown talent, I confess I sometimes can’t even tell if a candidate is, well, Black or brown. I’ll scour a person’s materials for linguistic ability, trade associations, and the list of degrees to see if any are from a historically Black college or university. In my decades of hiring, any glimpse into a candidate’s humanity in their resume or cover letter—even sharing details like the fact that they paid their way through school or took care of siblings—is rare.
There are certain demographic questions employers cannot ask outright without opening themselves up to lawsuits. And candidates' reticence to proactively highlight the personal is understandable. Attitudes toward “Black-sounding” names among job applicants haven’t budged much in 18 years, despite a lot more attention on systemic racism and unconscious bias in the workplace. In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, academics submitted 83,000 fake job applications and found Black names “reduced the likelihood of hearing back from an employer by 2.1 percentage points relative to distinctively White names.”
Yet there’s a generation of new employees just entering the workforce who have been asked to assert their identity every step of the way. What becomes of them? And how should workplaces adjust to the way they’ve been taught to represent themselves?
One shift managers will have to make, says Alexis McLaughlin, senior vice president of business development at the recruiting platform HIVE Diversity, is to stop framing race and identity as something employees disclose. Rather, “we encourage our users to share,” she says, a subtle but meaningful tweak that encourages workers to view their lived experience as an asset to potential teams beyond the hiring process. “We need to make it more about the person than the professional,” she says.“This new generation cares about this and we need to speak their language.”
HIVE’s founder and CEO Byron Slosar sees the platform as a sort of dating app for careers, one where students get to make the first move. “A lot of hiring managers are scared to talk about diversity,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Where do I look for diverse talent?’ It’s not where you look but how you look,” including an expanded understanding of the factors that diversify a talent pool. As an example, he mentions first-generation college students, who might receive resources and extra help on campus, but also need attention and mentorship once hired into their first jobs.
Taking a cue from college applications, I ask Slosar what elements of his identity he highlights. “My value to the workforce is not that I am gay and grew up in Louisiana with five siblings. Rather, it’s the diversity of our lived experiences,” he says. “I am still massively relevant even though I did not struggle the way others have struggled. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old and raised him in the middle of the pandemic. I am not saying my struggle is more or less relevant. We all have our own experiences and that’s what diversity in the workforce is supposed to be.”
That is precisely what colleges are trying to achieve, says Hafeez Lakhani, founder and president of Lakhani Coaching, a college admissions prep and consulting firm.
“Think about selective admissions like a dinner table,” he tells me. “Representations of diversity—be it ethnic, gender, or simply the fact that the student plays a rare instrument—add something intangible to that dinner table conversation, making it richer in perspective for other students in the community.” Reduced enrollments from international students, Lakhani says, are one way pandemic-era college campuses are not only less diverse but less reflective of a globalized workforce.
As we seek to bring diverse hires into our workplaces, we need to assess our screening and interview questions to ensure we’re being intentional and not just striving for cosmetic diversity. To borrow language from the college essay, we might ask: How do you see your identity and how might it contribute to the diversity of our company? The question alone sends another message: We don’t only care about what you’ve done. Who you are matters, too.
S. Mitra Kalita is co-founder and CEO of URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news and information outlets that share content, revenue, and distribution. She also is publisher of Epicenter-NYC, a community journalism initiative in Queens. A veteran journalist, Mitra most recently worked at CNN, and is the author of two books. Follow her on Twitter @mitrakalita. Sign up here to have Mitra's columns and Charter newsletters delivered to you by email.