Every role or educational program you apply to has preferences that aren’t expressed on the job requirements or course website. The most common of these kinds of preferences are demographics and stereotypes.
Demographic preferences are based on a combination of the biases and incentives of the hiring manager/team or admissions officer/team. It is typically an outcome of either a well designed diversity program or plain old bias.
We’ll address bias first. Bias is the most frustrating kind of unsaid preference. It is what women and minority groups faced for decades. It is when we say – “You may be qualified but we want someone who looks or speaks a certain way.”
Diversity programs exist today to right the wrongs of decades of the sort of bias mentioned above. Elite graduate school programs don’t magically hit their diversity numbers – they have a thoughtful plan and execute against it. From a societal point of view, I think an emphasis on diversity is a good thing as it provides a counter to privilege while also ensuring groups make better decisions (diverse groups do that). That said, in your own career journey, this can still be frustrating in the short term as you don’t generally control your demographic group.
Stereotype preferences, unlike demographic preferences, are typically rooted in bias that flows from the organization’s or team’s culture. However, this is one of those places where we must appreciate the nuance. In moderation, bias serves both sides well. Individuals who operate with values and processes that don’t work with the group are not going to have a good experience (and vice versa). But, the trouble here is that groups go too far with the bias too often. In their blind pursuit for cultural fit, they fail to appreciate the importance of cultural contribution.
The good news, if you are an applicant, is that stereotype preferences can be mitigated with good storytelling and good interview preparation if you believe you’ll be a good fit for the job/school. For example, if you are a former finance person looking to move into marketing, you would probably need to over index on your customer focus and empathy through the application process and under emphasize your analytical skills.
Now that we’ve understood both these preferences, let me go back to the reason for this post. As an applicant into companies and schools, I strongly believe in the importance of awareness of these demographic and stereotype preferences. You can get a good sense of this from speaking to folks within the team or organization. Awareness of these preferences is the foundation of a good application and preparation strategy.
I have spoken to multiple folks who get visibly get frustrated with me when I mention these upfront (and I always do). I can understand why – bias is frustrating when you are on the wrong end of it. And, I have been frustrated about these as an applicant myself. But, it is also important to recognize that the best way to work with reality is to understand it. And, we cannot understand it if we are unwilling to see it for what it is.
Besides, I hope that awareness of these biases as applicants will make us better admission officers and hiring managers when we have the privilege of being on the other side of the table.