NEWS

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January 17, 2003

Study shows racial discrimination

Racial discrimination is still prevalent in many companies' hiring practices, according to a new study released by professors from the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business (GSB) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The study found that job applicants with typically white first names have substantially more success than applicants with typically black first names. With all résumé qualifications being equal, one out of ten applicants in the study who had white-sounding first names was invited for a job interview, whereas only one out of fifteen applicants with black-sounding names received a similar invitation.

"The results are having a big impact because people recognize that they're true," said Carolyn Nordstrom, president of Chicago United, a racially diverse corporate membership organization. "This study highlights the need for personal responsibility in getting rid of discrimination."

Marianne Bertrand, associate professor of economics in the GSB, and Sendhil Mullainathan, assistant professor at MIT, replied to 1,300 help-wanted ads in The Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe between mid-2001 and mid-2002, sending résumés from fictional job seekers to each prospective employer for the study.

Each employer received four resumes: two from highly qualified applicants, and two from less qualified applicants. One in each group had a black-sounding name, and one in each group had a white-sounding name. The two applicants with comparable qualifications had equivalent levels of education, experience, and skills.

The companies in the study requested interviews with 10.1 percent of applicants with white-sounding names, as opposed to only 6.7 percent of those with black-sounding names, a "significant" disparity, according to Bertrand.

"There is a substantial amount of discrimination in the job recruiting process," the study concluded, arguing that the difference in callback rates "solely can be attributed to name manipulation."

"It is a wake up call to companies who are trying seriously to create a corporate culture free of prejudice but aren't succeeding. They're not doing as well as they think they are," Bertrand said. "Companies may create policies with good intentions, but it is people who implement these policies, and people always carry prejudices, whether [they] be against people with blonde hair or with Southern accents or with certain names."

Whereas previous studies have used human applicants to study racial discrimination in hiring practices, by using résumés rather than individuals, Bertrand and Mullainathan's study eliminates many of the variables that made previous studies vulnerable to allegations of imprecision.

The professors used Massachusetts birth certificates to find first names commonly assigned to white babies and black babies. All birth certificates the professors used dated from 1974 to 1979, since the fictional job applicants of the study were approximately 25 years old.

The study used four categories of names--black male, black female, white male, and white female--with each category containing nine different names.

Résumés were submitted to clerical, secretarial, administrative, customer service, and sales positions, tailored to each job and based on actual résumés submitted for similar positions.

For transportation and communications positions, applicants with black-sounding names received more positive responses. Additionally, companies located in primarily black Chicago neighborhoods exhibited less discrimination against applicants with black-sounding names.

Chicago United studies indicate that racial discrimination still occurs frequently in Chicago and throughout the country. Racial biases are particularly apparent in high-ranking, white-collar positions, according to Nordstrom.

Companies measure their diversity by outcome statistics and do not audit the behavior of individual recruiters who may have certain ethnic or racial prejudices, Nordstrom said. "We all have prejudices, but companies need to control the work environment and make sure that it is sending the right cues to its employees about how they ought to operate."

The study has brought to light what many scholars and job-seekers already believed to be true. Nevertheless, it has caused concern among many students and soon-to-be applicants for jobs.

"I think it's horrible and sad that employers use something as insignificant as race or ethnicity to evaluate whether a person is qualified for a position in their company," said Shakir Standley, a third-year in the College. "If you're an employer, you should be looking at who can bring the most to a position, in terms of skills and experience. Race shouldn't matter. That's just good business sense."