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Anti-Black hiring discrimination in America has not improved in 30 years, researcher finds

Twenty/20

Hiring discrimination against Black job applicants has remained about as rampant as it was in 1989 and has only improved slightly for Hispanic applicants, according to a 2017 study published by professors at Northwestern, Harvard, and the Institute for Social Research in Norway.

There haven't been any signs of improvement in the three years since the study's publication, either, according to one of its authors. "We still have no trend when we plug in a few more data points over the last few years," says Lincoln Quillian, a sociology professor at Northwestern University.

The study — a meta-analysis of several dozen experimental studies conducted over 26 years — looked primarily at the rate of applicants that got called in for interviews. In many of the studies, comparable resumes were submitted to employers; the only difference was that some resumes came from names stereotypically associated with different races.

Between 1989 and 2015, white applicants were 36% more likely to get called in than Black applicants and 24% more likely than Hispanic applicants, the researchers found. In that time frame, the situation remained largely the same for Black applicants, and only improved slightly for Hispanic applicants. 

How racism and bias can harm career prospects

"Discrimination in the workplace can be traumatizing, but even just trying to find a job can be quite difficult, especially if you've studied hard and you've gotten good grades, or you graduated from a really prestigious school, and you can't get an interview," says Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist at the University of Ottawa and an expert on race and discrimination-based stress.

The expectation among BIPOC employees and job applicants, Williams says, is that they have to constantly work "twice as hard" throughout their careers — at school, during the application and interview processes, and on the job once they finally get hired — to achieve the same success as white colleagues.

Discrimination against initial interviews has declined slightly for Latino applicants since 1989, Quillian's study observed. He thinks that could be due to America's growing Latino population and a growing number of Latino executives in a position to hire. Even so, that slight improvement isn't substantial enough for him to say that anti-Latino hiring discrimination is definitively waning. In fact, he notes, his results could be a statistical anomaly.

"For Latinos, actually, if anything, the new data that we have [since the 2017 study] a little bit weakens a case that there's been a decline," he says. "It looks a little more flat."

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How to limit bias in hiring

There are many proven methods employers can use to reduce discrimination, like conducting blind interviews and removing names from resumes under review, Williams says. 

The share of female musicians in America's top symphony orchestras quintupled between 1970 and 1997 after orchestras began holding auditions with partitions so that music directors couldn't see the identities of the musicians, according to a 1997 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example.
Blind hiring can be as simple as obscuring names on resumes with a marker, according to a 2018 analysis from the Society for Human Resource Management.

"It's just a matter of will for them to do it," says Williams. "A lot of employers don't want to [use blind hiring methods] because they want to be able to discriminate and pick their their friends for jobs over people that they may not feel as comfortable with."

It's just a matter of will for them to do it.
Monnica Williams
Clinical psychologist, University of Ottawa

Applicants from majority groups were two and a half times more likely to receive offers than comparable minority applicants, according to 2020 study also co-authored by Quillian. That disparity is three times as bad as the one for initial interviews.

One basic thing employers can do is to track the backgrounds of their applicants, employees, and leaders, Quillian says, so that they get a sense of the scope of the problem. That's a step many companies fail to take. Having dedicated employees handle the hiring process — people who have the training, time, and bandwidth to properly address diversity concerns — can also be useful to ensure more diversity in hiring.

Since humans are inherently biased, often in ways they don't consciously understand themselves, Williams maintains it's all the more important to acknowledge and work within that reality when setting hiring policies.

"People think they're not biased, so they don't think that they need to do these extra measures in order to ensure fairness," says Williams. "And I think it's important that people not assume they're unbiased, because we know the psychology tells us that everybody's biased. You need to kind of go in assuming that and think, 'What can I do to mitigate it?'"

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