The National Bureau of Economic Research has released a very disheartening working paper.
From a summary of "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination," by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan:
In response to help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston newspapers, they sent resumes with either African-American- or white-sounding names and then measured the number of callbacks each resume received for interviews. Thus, they experimentally manipulated perception of race via the name on the resume. Half of the applicants were assigned African-American names that are "remarkably common" in the black population, the other half white sounding names, such as Emily Walsh or Greg Baker.
To see how the credentials of job applicants affect discrimination, the authors varied the quality of the resumes they used in response to a given ad. Higher quality applicants were given a little more labor market experience on average and fewer holes in their employment history. They were also portrayed as more likely to have an email address, to have completed some certification degree, to possess foreign language skills, or to have been awarded some honors.
In total, the authors responded to more than 1,300 employment ads in the sales, administrative support, clerical, and customer services job categories, sending out nearly 5,000 resumes. The ads covered a large spectrum of job quality, from cashier work at retail establishments and clerical work in a mailroom to office and sales management positions.
The results indicate large racial differences in callback rates to a phone line with a voice mailbox attached and a message recorded by someone of the appropriate race and gender. Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback. This would suggest either employer prejudice or employer perception that race signals lower productivity.
The study has weaknesses (e.g. it only measures callbacks rather than job offers; it relies only on newspaper ads; etc.) but it raises tough questions about fairness in American society. What's worse, any sort of near-term remedy is far from self-evident. As the authors note,
From a policy standpoint, this aspect of the findings suggests that training programs alone may not be enough to alleviate the barriers raised by discrimination, the authors write. "If African-Americans recognize how employers reward their skills, they may be rationally more reluctant than whites to even participate in these programs."
Similarly, even supporters of affirmative action will have to acknowledge that a) these results occurred in an employment system that already has affirmative action and b) if the problem is that prospective employers worry that "race signals lower productivity," those employers will work around policies designed to ameliorate racial disparities in hiring.
The paper is available at http://www.nber.org/digest/sep03/w9873.html.
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