The Fear Factor

Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!


Dear Dr. Clemmons: I am a black male with a bachelor's degree in biology from a prestigious university and 6 years of graduate training in molecular biology and genetics. I recently took a position in industry and to my dismay, I was let go after working at the company for only 7 days! Although in my state all employment is considered "at will," I am upset because I know that I lost my job for reasons that had nothing to do with my qualifications or ability to do the work. In fact, during the short period of time that I was with the company I succeeded in performing a scientific task that others in the group had considered difficult and had been unable to do. I was not given a reason for my dismissal, but I know that others in the group, including my boss, were intimidated by my level of scientific knowledge and by my physical presence. I am certain that I was identified as not being a "good fit" for the group because of others' perceptions of me and not the reality of who I am and what I can contribute to the company. Due to this occurrence and other similar experiences in other jobs, I now believe that it is a myth that you can obtain a job based on merit alone. In fact, I have come to think that as long as you are in the job market, you are at the mercy of people who may not like you due to other more subtle reasons. Can you please tell me how I could flourish as a top-notch research scientist, yet be myself-- an educated black man? I am sick and tired of the status quo. - Sick and Tired in Industry

Dear Sick and Tired in Industry:

I completely understand your difficulties and believe that your feelings are valid. Indeed, I've faced similar situations in my professional life, as well. I've had to deal with people who have undervalued me because of who I am (black and female) and who couldn't see past that to consider what I could bring to the table. Although I have never lost a job over these types of prejudices, I'm quite certain that I've not been offered jobs in the first place for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with my credentials or ability.

Unfortunately, though, you can only control yourself and your own attitude, not the attitudes or actions of others, no matter how frustrating the circumstances. However, you can also try to educate people as you go along so that the next person does not suffer as you have. That being said, it's important to find ways to control your own professional destiny. ... The more I talk to people who work in corporate America, the more horror stories I hear about how professionals have lost control of their livelihoods. Whether it's a layoff, or--as in your case--an evidently unjustified firing, this kind of loss of control over the direction of your career can be devastating to one's self-esteem.

In a previous article, I referred to a phenomenon called "stereotype threat"--the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype. But what you must know is that it is the stereotype that subjects you to disrespect, not who you are as an individual.

So, I think that you lost your most recent job because you were being viewed through the lens of a stereotype. Of course, your credentials are impeccable, but according to stereotype threat, your achievements and abilities did not filter through the lens through which you were perceived, which was clouded by your identification as a black male. In the eyes of mainstream American society, you are a black man first and foremost. Because you are a black man, you are associated with the lowest common denominator of what the evening news has told society about black men: you must be problematic, lazy, or a thug. Furthermore, you are not in a position to assert yourself or your views because in doing so, you'd become "unbearable" or "hard to work with." Unlike for most people, your science degree and associated middle-class social status do not necessarily translate into more respect for you as an individual. I speak from experience here. Most people will take one look at you and have already made up their mind that you are going to be some sort of a problem. On the job, if you have one bad incident, real or perceived, then it will confirm their fears. So, there is a fear factor at work here and you are suffering because of it, even though that fear is irrational and unfounded.

To hear about your situation is ironic in light of the Supreme Court's revisitation of the affirmative action issue this month. Two important cases came before the Supreme Court, and the court's decisions on these cases were widely expected to define the future of affirmative action. One case involved the University of Michigan Law School, and the other their undergraduate admissions policies. (For a good lay person's overview of the two cases involved, click to a useful article on CNN's Web site.) Fortunately, the Supreme Court did not eliminate the use of race as a factor in the University of Michigan Law School admissions process (see the full text of the court's decision here). But it did strike down the use of a point system used to factor race into the undergraduate admissions system.

The good news is that in general, the court upheld the principal of affirmative action. However, President George W. Bush has wasted no time at all in claiming that these decisions will move the country toward "race neutral" policies. Indeed, to hear some tell it, racial prejudices are all but gone and affirmative action needs to be done away with. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Most opponents of race-based affirmative action believe that economic affirmative action should replace the boost given to members of racial minorities. Problem is, racial minorities are discriminated against because of their race, not their economic status. Therefore, no matter how well to do or how poor you may be, as an ethnic minority you represent the same stereotype to most people in this society. Thus, a concentration on economics alone will not solve the problem of inequity.

Yours is a case in point. How else do you explain the unfairness that you have faced? You didn't lose your job because of your educational or economic status. You lost it because of your gender and the color of your skin--or, more particularly, the perceptions that go along with those attributes. You don't have to have affirmative action because of your great credentials and ability to get the job done, but you need affirmative action because without it, you may not ever be given the chance to prove yourself.

So, let me get back to what to do in your situation. ...

The best advice that I can give is to urge you to seek out situations in which you can flourish. Associate yourself with people and companies that value you as a person; as an individual. This is easier said than done, I know. But you must try in order to maintain your sanity. The hard truth in the private (and to a lesser extent, the public) sector is that no one is going to hire you or retain you as an employee due to your merits if they can't lose sight of the fact that you are a black male--regardless of how stellar your credentials may be. The fear factor will take over every time.

No one talks about this very often, but I have observed that, with the exception of those that receive government grants or contracts, private companies do not have many incentives to ensure that ethnic minorities are treated fairly in the hiring and firing process. I have also noticed that unless they are forced to take a good look at diversity issues, most companies chose not to. This is especially true of private companies, which are under no legal obligation to release any data regarding any of their activities--HR-related or otherwise--into the public domain. And interestingly, some companies that are publicly praised for doing a good job on diversity issues have internal employees wondering who's collecting the data, because their realities inside the company don't live up to the public hype (see box). Given this type of anecdotal evidence, it remains an open question whether industries are making adequate progress in the hiring, retention, and promotion of women and minorities.

Whose Reality?

An article in the 16 June 2003 issue of The Scientist includes a quote from an anonymous female employee of an unnamed biotech company. The article states that "An employee at a large pharmaceutical company in southern California questions its reputation as a place that promotes women and minorities of merit equally with men. 'I always wonder why the damned place gets such high ratings,' she says. 'I don't know how they run things on the East Coast, but in San Diego they are a PhD's redneck boys' club.' "

I wish I had better news for you, but that is the state of affairs, as best I can tell. You are absolutely right in your assessment that when you are an ethnic minority, and especially a black man, qualifications are secondary or tertiary factors in determining whether you will be able to get or keep a job or get a promotion. People love to talk about merit and are always asking whether minorities are "qualified" to hold a particular job. But even when the "qualifications" criteria are met, some people then go to Plan B in an effort to figure out why they shouldn't hire you, promote you, or retain you as an employee. From my experience, and the experiences of a great many of my minority colleagues, this behavior is quite prevalent.

The only potential bright spot here is that this negative experience might serve as an impetus for you to figure out how to create your own professional destiny. This is the key to retaining your identity and rescuing your self-esteem. In order to control your own future, you have to be in control of selling your own labor or product. As a scientist, you have many marketable skills. Perhaps you can figure out how you to start your own business, consult, or find some other means of making your own reality? If you don't want to go it alone, perhaps you can find a partner.

I sincerely believe that ownership of your own labor is the only way you can overcome being at the mercy of others. For you, it is particularly important to find a way to own your own labor. You will not only be creating a different reality for yourself, you will also be making a positive impact on all minorities. Seeing that you have hung out your own shingle as a black, male scientist might inspire more people who find themselves in a situation that is similar to the one you've described to do the same thing.

I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors! Keep me posted!


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