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Experimental Research Reveals Pervasive Discrimination In The Labour Market

Employment discrimination on the basis of race and sex is widespread, according to a new research report by Dr Peter Riach and Dr Judy Rich, published in the latest issue of the Economic Journal. Their survey of numerous experimental studies designed to detect racial and sexual discrimination in employers” hiring practices across Europe, Australia and North America reveals pervasive and enduring discrimination against non-whites and women, denied jobs purely because of their colour or sex.

The pervasive nature of the discrimination detected by research indicates the limited success of current equal opportunity legislation and agencies, the authors conclude. In Britain, for example, the multi-dimensional nature of employment discrimination suggests that the fragmented approach to enforcement, with separate agencies dealing with disability, race and sex, should be replaced by a single authority. That agency should be charged with responsibility for ensuring equality of job opportunity for all, regardless of age, disability, race, religion, sex and sexual preference.

Research of an experimental nature, extending across 35 years and 9 countries, has consistently detected significant discrimination against non-whites in access to employment. Asians, Arabs and various African-descendant groups have encountered such discrimination in Australia, Europe and North America. The same research technique has also detected sexual discrimination in the labour markets of Australia, Europe and the United States.

The technique of using bogus pairs of job applicants to test for employment discrimination originated in England in the 1960s and has subsequently been extended to Australia, North America and several European countries. Two bogus applicants respond to job advertisements in person, by telephone or by letter. The applicants present equivalent qualifications, experience and age, so that the only distinguishing characteristic is race or sex. In the case of personal applications, the English tradition has been to use professional actors, to ensure that presentation and motivation is controlled for. If one race or sex is consistently preferred in employer responses, it provides unequivocal evidence of employment discrimination as all other factors have been controlled for in this experimental approach.

Experiments in 7 countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, France, the Netherlands and Spain) have detected that non-white racial minorities were discriminated against in more than 25% of the occasions when interviews or jobs were offered.

The non-white groups included Afro-Caribbeans, Antillians, Indians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Surinamese and Vietna mese. These African-descendant, Arab and Asian groups have very diverse cultural, educational, religious and social backgrounds. The one thing that they have in common is that they are not white. The 7 countries where this discrimination was detected all have a predominantly white population, but have experienced substantial non-white immigration during the last 40 years.

In Australia, Britain and the United States, statistically significant discrimination against women has been detected, by this experimental method, in higher status and/or hierarchically senior jobs. For example, men were preferred as waiters in high-price restaurants in Philadelphia, but women were preferred as waiters in low-price restaurants.

In Melbourne, women encountered discrimination in the occupations of computer analyst programmer and management accountant, but not as payroll clerks or computer operators. On the other hand, men encountered discrimination at a rate of at least 50% when applying for secretarial posts in Atlanta, London and Vienna.

The technique has been applied on one occasion to test for age discrimination: in Washington DC, 57-year-old applicants, who were matched against 32-year-old applicants, faced discrimination in a third of their job applications. In view of the contemporary concern about pension provision and the demographic profile of the British population, a replication of this test for age discrimination in Britain would be particularly valuable. It is essential that the ” flexible labour market” should apply also to the supply side, in order that older workers have equal access to employment.

”Field Experiments of Discrimination in the Market Place” by P.A. Riach and J. Rich is published in the November 2002 issue of the Economic Journal. Dr Riach can be contacted at 13 Tamar House, 12 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RD; Dr Rich at 60 Adelaide St., Armadale, Victoria, Australia 3143.

Peter Riach

020-7837-1530 | Peterriach@aol.com

Judy Rich

+613-9822-5431 | Judy.Rich@buseco.monash.edu.au