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Hiring discrimination: The problem that won’t go away

Northwestern sociologists find discrimination in North America and Europe has changed very little
There has been no change in hiring discrimination when aggregating six countries — Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the U.S. — a new study finds.

Decades ago, many experts predicted that hiring discrimination would gradually disappear as anti-discrimination laws took effect and social norms changed to favor diversity and reject racism. But this hasn’t happened, according to a new study from Northwestern sociologist Lincoln Quillian and former student John J. Lee, a recent graduate of the doctoral program in sociology.

Instead, hiring discrimination against four racial and ethnic minority groups remained relatively consistent over the past several decades across six countries in North America and Western Europe. The findings are disappointing, according to Quillian, a professor of sociology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, but he said we can still reduce hiring discrimination going forward. The keys: enforcement and accountability.

Northwestern Now sat down with Quillian to learn more about the study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and to better understand trends in hiring discrimination in Europe and North America since the 1990s. 

What is the key takeaway from the study?

The biggest takeaway was that on average, there has been no change in hiring discrimination when combining data across six countries — Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the U.S. — together. There’s a broad pattern of stability. We also identified a few other interesting trends, including both increases and decreases in hiring discrimination for particular groups and countries.

What were some of those trends?

First, for ethnic groups that originate in the Middle East and North Africa — in mostly Muslim majority countries — there was an increase in discrimination. It’s probable that that's because of the September 11 attacks and the wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Before about 2010, France had the highest level of discrimination of any of the countries studied, but in this analysis, we saw it converge toward a level that was more similar to other Western European countries.

Finally, we found some evidence that there had been a general increase in discrimination across all groups over time in the Netherlands. Several countries had a slight upward trend, but it was statistically significant there. It’s possible that more broadly, this increase is tied to things like the growth of far-right politics and sentiment against non-white immigrants.

Might we might see less discrimination as the younger generations ascend?

Social surveys do suggest that there has been a change in people’s views across generations. If you look at survey responses in the 1970s, for example, older generations had much more conservative racial attitudes. In fact, some white Southerners in the U.S. at the time openly endorsed many forms of segregation and discrimination.

Those folks have been aging out of the labor force for a long time, but it hasn’t produced the change that we might expect. There does seem to be some evidence that the youngest generation, especially those who have experienced the Black Lives Matter movement, have different opinions about race and ethnicity, but I think it really remains to be seen whether and how much that is going to change hiring discrimination.

Why are new European laws seemingly ineffective?

There is some evidence that when antidiscrimination laws first went into effect in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, they did have a real effect. That was likely a combination of real enforcement and the halting of some very open forms of discrimination. For example, until the early 1960s, people routinely listed the desired race of applicants in domestic help wanted ads. In other countries, it's been a more gradual process. Sometimes, that’s due to a lack of enforcement, and sometimes, it’s because the definition of discrimination has been different. Some countries have prohibited speech and acts that represent negative opinions about different groups, but not unequal treatment of the kind that constitutes hiring discrimination.

But it is disappointing that there haven’t been more obvious changes. In the 2000s, the European Union instituted racial equality directives that required all member countries to put into law rules that made discrimination illegal in several areas of life, including hiring, and also required certain standards about how you could enforce these laws. Our study didn’t find any real effect of that directive going into play, and neither did a previous study that focused on it explicitly. So, it’s definitely disappointing that legislation hasn’t had a bigger effect. But I think that the U.S. experience in the ’60s and ’70s indicates that it is possible that legislation can have an important effect if there’s real enforcement.

What can be done to reduce discrimination today?

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. Such policies can also help encourage companies to take a second look at their own numbers. Bigger companies especially realize that if their hiring patterns show a preference for white candidates, there is both a risk of bad publicity and discrimination lawsuits.

Beyond that, there’s evidence that mentoring programs can pay off, especially when it comes to promotions within companies. The evidence is less clear for diversity training; studies haven’t yet shown strong evidence either for or against it.