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Job descriptions—are we just ticking off boxes we don’t even realize we’re trapped in?

August 3, 2021, 5:57 PM UTC

It’s something of a ritual: an email or a LinkedIn message requesting recommendations for one or another role, often ending with a plea for “diverse candidates.” Sometimes it’s a full-time position, other times a board or advisory role. In all cases, the person seeking candidates will emphasize they’re looking for a “broad range of skills and expertise” while noting that they “don’t want to lower the bar.”

Let’s talk about that bar for a moment.

I have long described job descriptions as wishlists; a collection of hopes and dreams that reflect both opportunities to be taken advantage of and challenges to be overcome. Wishlists are always aspirational, and what hiring manager worth their salt doesn’t have ambitions beyond their approved headcount, budgets, and timelines? 

Sometimes, job descriptions reflect a desire for more of the same: they’re a list of qualifications held by the last person in the role, with some tweaks for timeliness or changing market realities. 

Above all though, job descriptions (like performance reviews!) are codifications of biases, patterns, and assumptions.

Which means that bar we say we never want to lower exists primarily to maintain and reinforce the homogeneity of the existing workforce, team or management structure that wrote and approved it in the first place. It’s hard to think outside of a box you don’t even realize you’re trapped in.

Let’s return for a moment to one of my favorite hills, that of the unpaid internship. People who can afford to work for free gain access and experience unavailable to peers who lack that option. Those internships then qualify them for the entry level positions that require or prefer “1-3 years of experience.” Those folks make their way up the ladder, and ultimately become the ones who get to set…the bar.

Some years ago I asked a very accomplished and terrifyingly brilliant friend about what it took to be considered for a seat on the board of a publicly traded company. She thought about it for a moment, then said with a straight face: “A seat on the board of their biggest competitor.” She wasn’t kidding. 

It’s one thing to rethink how we construct job descriptions and why. It would be quite another to follow the advice of Angelique Power, the incoming president and CEO of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation. As she put it so aptly, lasting and distinctive change comes when we “disrupt old notions of who should be in power.”

Why worry about lowering the bar when you can raise your game?

On Point

When a dollar isn’t a dollar August 3 is Black women’s equal pay day, which marks roughly how long it takes a Black woman to earn what a white, non-Hispanic man in a comparable full-time role would have earned by the end of the previous year. According to The 19th, citing a study by Syndio, the relative lack of access to high-profile roles (ahem, remember those job descriptions?) for Black women is a contributing factor to this ongoing disparity. “White men hold private sector executive positions at 9.2 times the rate of Black women,” the study showed. But this is the line that really got to me: according to the Syndio report, if current trends hold, “the executive and management opportunity gap between white women and white men will close in 2041.” The opportunity gap between women of color, including Black women, and white men? That gap won’t close for more than 100 years. 

The 19th

The rise of corporate COVID-19 vaccine mandates Many organizations’ plans to return to the office just after Labor Day are looking less certain as the Delta variant sweeps across the country. At the same time, many of the largest companies in the US are moving to require vaccines for all employees. Google, Facebook, Disney, Uber and Walmart are just some of the companies who’ve announced vaccine mandates in the past week. Although as the New York Times reports there are different requirements for some workers covered by union agreements, and for non-salaried, retail, and factory workers. States including California and New York are requiring the vaccine for federal employees, while Texas’ governor Greg Abbott has banned any mandates for either vaccines or masks. With so much uncertainty, it’s at least possible to be clear on what is and what is not a HIPAA violation. Spoiler: asking employees to prove they’ve been vaccinated is not a HIPAA violation.

Los Angeles Times

On Background

The “Black name penalty” is (still) a thing According to a massive study conducted by economists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago, at least 23 companies in the Fortune 500 were “very likely to be engaged in systemic discrimination against Black applicants.”

New York Times

What we mean when we say generational wealth According to NBC News, homeownership rates among millennials are lower than they were for previous generations at the same age. Enter: assistance from well-off boomer parents.

Better representation, coming soon to a ballot near you Americans polled by Gallup aren’t happy with the treatment of Asian Americans. Will they turn that dissatisfaction into turnout at the polls? As NPR reports, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders often face “othering” in part because they’re less visible in local political life. According to data from the Reflective Democracy Campaign and cited by NPR, “AAPIs make up only 2.4% of municipal officeholders despite comprising over 6% of the national population. And of the 100 largest cities in the country, only five are led by Asian American mayors and all of them are in California.” A new generation of politicians and strategists is determined to change that. 

NPR

Mood board / The Big Move

An Olympic move, quite literally, and in more ways than one: U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders racked up a silver medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on Saturday, throwing a distance of meters 19.79. The Black LGBTQ athlete’s pose of choice? An X, "the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet."
Ju Huanzong—Xinhua/Getty Images

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