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Racial discrimination in hiring remains a persistent problem

Despite new laws and changing attitudes, little has changed in 25 years

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Decades after hiring discrimination was made illegal in many Western countries, experts predicted it would gradually disappear. But according to a major new meta-analysis from Northwestern University, discrimination in hiring has remained a persistent problem.

In fact, with few exceptions, rates of hiring discrimination have changed little since the 1990s, according to a new paper published Jan. 31 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Lincoln Quillian — a professor of sociology — and former student John J. Lee, a recent graduate of Northwestern’s doctoral program in sociology, co-authored the work.

Quillian and Lee analyzed 90 studies involving 174,000 total job applications from Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States to study trends in hiring discrimination among four racial-ethnic origin groups: African or Black, Middle Eastern or North African, Latin or Hispanic, and Asian. The oldest study in the analysis was a British study from 1969, and the most recent was a U.S. study from 2019. 

“The biggest takeaway was that on average, there has been no change in hiring discrimination when aggregating all six countries together,” Quillian said, despite laws passed in the European Union during the study period that aimed to reduce hiring discrimination. 

In four of the six countries and for three of the four racial-ethnic groups examined, discrimination roughly held stable. The researchers did find a few significant trends, however, that were both positive and negative.

France was the only country with a significant decline in discrimination, from very high levels in the 2000s to what are still high levels today, but in line with those of peer nations. There was a slight trend toward higher discrimination rates in all other countries except Canada, though the upward trend was only statistically significant in the Netherlands. 

“Several countries had a slight upward trend, so it was not unique to the Netherlands. It’s possible that more broadly, this increase is tied to things like the growth of right-wing politics and anti-immigrant sentiment,” Quillian said.

Among the racial-ethnic origin groups studied, most saw a constant rate of discrimination, except for Middle Eastern/North African job applicants. That group saw an uptick in hiring discrimination in the 2000s and 2010s as compared to the 1990s, which the researchers said may be attributable to rising bias against this group after terrorist attacks such as 9/11, which occurred during this period.

Other groups for which hiring trends were analyzed included African/Black, Asian and Latin American/Hispanic applicants. Relative to white applicants, applicants of color from all backgrounds in the study had to submit about 50% more applications per callback on average, Quillian said, with some variation between countries and groups. Callbacks are defined as employers expressing interest in interviewing candidates.

This means that if a white applicant must apply to 20 jobs on average to get a callback, an applicant of color would need to apply to 30. Further discrimination can occur later in the hiring process, but was not studied in this case, according to Quillian.

The 90 studies in the analysis were conducted in a similar manner, with minor differences. In most cases, researchers submitted fake application materials to real job openings, tweaking the materials slightly to include racial indicators along with otherwise similar credentials to ensure that differences in callback rates could be attributed to discrimination, rather than candidate qualifications.

Most studies analyzed (about 75%) were conducted since the 1990s, though trends extend back to the 1970s in France, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

Overall, Quillian said, it’s disappointing to see little progress despite anti-discrimination legislation, changing attitudes against open discrimination since the 1970s, and corporate and government policies that have sought to improve workforce diversity. 

According to the authors, further efforts are needed to have a real impact on hiring discrimination. Quillian believes that progress is possible if anti-discrimination policies are enforced, employers are held accountable, and mentorship programs support employees of color who are seeking promotion and advancement in particular fields. 

“Policies that require employers to keep track of and make publicly available the race or ethnicity of the people they're hiring make a lot of sense,” Quillian said. Such policies, he noted, can also encourage companies to take a second look at their own numbers. If their hiring patterns show a preference for white candidates, there is a risk of both bad publicity and discrimination lawsuits. 

Though there has been generational change over the last 50 years, with younger generations reporting less conservative racial attitudes than older ones, that change hasn’t been reflected in reduced hiring discrimination, Quillian said. 

“To make hiring discrimination a thing of the past, we need to be thoughtful and committed to enforcing the law and making changes in hiring practices to promote diversity,” he said.