Who Discriminates in Hiring? A New Study Can Tell.
Twenty years ago, Kalisha White performed an experiment. A graduate of Marquette University who is black, she suspected that her application for a position as a management team leader at Target in Wisconsin was being ignored due to her race. So she sent another one, with a name (Sarah Brucker) more likely to make the candidate look white.
While the fake resume wasn’t as successful as Ms. White’s, the alter ego got an interview. Target ultimately paid more than half a million dollars to settle a class action lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Ms. White and a handful of other black applicants.
Now, a variation of his strategy could help expose racial discrimination in employment in the corporate landscape.
Economists at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Chicago this week unveiled a large discrimination audit of some of America’s biggest companies. As of the end of 2019, they sent 83,000 bogus job applications for entry-level positions at 108 companies – most of them in the top 100 on the Fortune 500 list, and some of their affiliates.
Their ideas can provide valuable evidence on violations of the civil rights of black workers.
The researchers – Patrick Kline and Christopher Walters of Berkeley and Evan K. Rose of Chicago – are not ready to reveal the names of the companies on their list. But they plan to do so, once they expose the data to more statistical tests. Labor lawyers, the EEOC, and perhaps the companies themselves could do a lot with this information. (Dr Kline said they informed the US Department of Labor of the general findings.)
In the study, candidate characteristics – such as age, sexual orientation, or work and school experience – varied randomly. The names, however, were chosen on purpose to ensure that nominations arrive in pairs: one with a more distinctive white name – Jake or Molly, say – and the other with a similar background but a more black name. distinctive, like DeShawn or Imani.
What the researchers found probably wouldn’t surprise Ms. White: On average, applications from applicants with a “black name” receive fewer recalls than similar applications with a “white name”.
This corresponds to an article published by two economists at the University of Chicago a few years after Ms.White’s struggle with Target: Respondents to research aid ads in Boston and Chicago were much more fortunate if they s ‘Emily or Greg would only call if he was Lakisha or Jamal. (Marianne Bertrand, one of the perpetrators, testified as an expert witness in the trial regarding Ms. White’s discrimination complaint.)
According to some economists, this experimental approach with paired applications offers a closer representation of racial discrimination in the labor market than studies that seek to relate employment and wage gaps to other characteristics – such as level. education and skills – and treat discrimination as a residue, or what is left after other differences are taken into account.
Researchers from Berkeley and Chicago have found that discrimination is not uniform across the corporate landscape. Some companies do little discrimination, responding in the same way to applications from Molly and Latifa. Others show a measurable bias.
In total, for every 1,000 applications received, the researchers found that white applicants got about 250 responses, compared to about 230 for black applicants. But among a fifth of businesses, the average gap has grown to 50 recalls. Even admitting that some patterns of discrimination may be random, rather than the result of racism, they concluded that 23 companies of their selection were “very likely to be engaged in systemic discrimination against black applicants.”
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There are 13 auto retail and service companies on the Fortune 500 list. Five are among the 10 most discriminatory companies on the researchers’ list. Of the companies at high risk of discriminating on the basis of race, the findings found, eight are federal contractors, who are bound by particularly strict anti-discrimination rules and could as a result lose their government contracts.
“Discriminatory behaviors are clustered in particular companies,” the researchers wrote. “The identities of many of these companies can be inferred with great confidence. “
The researchers also identified some general trends. For starters, discriminating businesses tend to be less profitable, a finding consistent with the proposition of Gary Becker, who first studied discrimination in the workplace in the 1950s, that it is costly for businesses. to discriminate against productive workers.
The study found no strong link between discrimination and geography: job applications in the South have not been worse than anywhere else. Retailers, restaurants and bars discriminate more than average. And employers with more centralized workforce management operations that process job applications tend to discriminate less, suggesting that uniform rules and procedures across a company can help reduce racial bias.
A precedent for the article published this week is a 1978 study that sent out pairs of bogus applications with similar qualifications but different photos, showing a white or black candidate. Interestingly, this study found evidence of “reverse” discrimination against white applicants.
Further studies on fake CVs have followed in recent years. One found that recent black college graduates receive fewer callbacks from potential employers than white applicants with identical resumes. Another found that potential employers treat black graduates from elite universities in much the same way as white graduates from less selective institutions.
A study reported that when employers in New York and New Jersey were prohibited from asking questions about applicants’ criminal records, callbacks to black applicants declined significantly compared to white job seekers, suggesting that employers assumed black applicants were more likely to have a record.
What makes the new research valuable is that it shows regulators, courts and labor lawyers how large-scale auditing of hiring practices offers a method to monitor and control bias. “Our results demonstrate that it is possible to identify individual companies responsible for a substantial portion of racial discrimination while maintaining a strict limit on the expected number of false positives encountered,” the researchers wrote.
Sole proprietorships could even use the results to reform their hiring practices.
Dr Kline of Berkeley said Jenny R. Yang, former chief commissioner of the EEOC and current director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which has jurisdiction over federal contractors, was briefed on the findings and expressed his interest in the technique of researchers. (A representative from the agency declined to comment or make Ms. Yang available.)
Similar tests have been carried out since the 1980s to detect housing discrimination by real estate agents and rental housing owners. Tests in which white and non-white people inquire about the availability of housing suggest that discrimination remains endemic.
Deploying this approach to the labor market has proven to be a bit more difficult. Last year, the New York City Commission on Human Rights conducted tests to detect discrimination in employment – whether based on race, gender, age, or of any other protected class – in 2,356 stores. Yet “employment is always more difficult than housing,” said Sapna Raj, deputy commissioner of the agency’s law enforcement office, which enforces anti-discrimination regulations.
“It might give us a better understanding,” Ms. Raj said of the study by researchers at Berkeley and Chicago. “What we would do is assess the information and proactively seek ways to process it.”
The committee, she noted, could not act on its own on the basis of the type of statistics in the new study. “There is so much that you have to look at before you can determine that this is discrimination,” she argued. Nonetheless, she suggested, the statistical analysis could alert her to which employers it makes sense to consult.
And that could ultimately convince businesses that discrimination is costly. “This is workable evidence of the illegal behavior of large corporations,” Dr. Walters of Berkeley said on twitter as part of the publication of the study. “Modern statistical methods have the potential to help detect and remedy civil rights violations.
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