O’Donnell: What biases have you found to be most harmful to mentorship?
Milkman: Stereotyping, where we assume that people having certain characteristics—how they look, how they talk—allows you to make assumptions about their abilities, or their interests. Even if you have the best of intentions as a mentor, you may inadvertently use stereotypes to shape the kinds of advice and pointers that you offer to your mentees.
O’Donnell: Can you think of an example?
Milkman: For instance, if you have multiple mentees, and you think an opportunity might be beneficial for one of them, you should stop and say, “Hey, could this be beneficial for the others? Is there a reason I'm not thinking of them? Is there a true distinction in their interests or what would benefit them? Or could it possibly be stereotyping?”
O’Donnell: Your work on decision-making bias in mentorship has expanded on the concept of “micro-inequities.” What are those and what role do they play in people’s professional lives?
Milkman: Small things add up over the course of a career, including a lack of opportunity, or a lack of networking. In our work, we looked specifically at the encouragement that prospective doctoral students received from faculty when they approached them about their research and the possibility of working with them. If a professor’s decision to respond or not is based on any kind of stereotyping, we argue that this is exactly the type of small act that, when aggregated, can have a large impact on a person’s career. If every time you seek encouragement you face these inequalities—less encouragement, less responsiveness—it can add up to substantially fewer women and minorities in the pipeline.
O’Donnell: What is the most counterintuitive thing that behavioral economics has to say about how bias can impact people’s careers over time?
Milkman: In the context of networking, which is very relevant to mentoring, we are likely to try and help people in our social networks by making connections for them. I might say, “Oh, you’re interested in journalism—I was just talking to a journalist that writes for The Atlantic.” We proactively or even just reactively offer helpful connections, guidance, and opportunities for people in our social networks, because that's part of being a good person, frankly.
The thing is, every time we offer help to one person, that’s actually harming all the people who aren’t receiving help. If one person gets a leg up, that’s a leg down for whomever else is competing for those opportunities.
O’Donnell: And what does that mean for women and people of color?
Milkman: White men tend to have the best social networks and be the best connected—that is an empirical fact. What that means is that when we are all going around in our daily lives, trying to help the people we know, the act of helping those people disadvantages women and minorities—because at scale white men preferentially get those networking advantages. And so that’s another really pernicious bias that I think as a mentor we have to be very aware of: Who are we helping?