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Workplace discrimination prompts ‘whitened’ job applications

Does it seem familiar?

It’s fairly common knowledge that there’s a bias in favour of white people in the employment market, but here’s something you may not know: it’s not just bigotry. In fact, it’s rational.

Tim Harford talks through the psychology behind this in The Logic Of Life.

In the experiment, students were divided into 2 groups – employers and employees. The employees were then randomly told if they were green or purple.

The employees were asked to spend a sum of money on an education – they could choose to do this or not.

Then there was a test, which was a die roll. If you’d paid for an education, it was weighted in your favour.

Employers were given 2 bits of information: the employee’s colour group and their test score. If they hired people with an education, they got money. If they hired people without an education, money was docked.

After the first round, the employers also had all the historical data of how many people in each colour group had invested in an education.

The first round was colour-blind. Green or purple made no difference. But, through chance, more greens had elected to buy an education than purples.

In the next round, the employers knew that. Their decision became biased toward the greens.

The frightening part was how it became self-reinforcing. Greens invested in an education, because they had good prospects. Purples didn’t bother, because they weren’t being hired regardless of their test score, so why bother? Employers could see even less purples investing in education, and became even more wary of hiring them, and so it went on.

I’m sure I don’t need to explain how that maps over to the real employment market.

Here’s the point: we live in a world of imperfect information, and we use that information as a proxy for what we really want to know.

This has a lot of social implications – statistically, we know that people from ethnic minorities, on average, have a lower level of education than white people in Britain. This is due to the chances they’ve had in life rather than any difference in ability, but it’s still true.

A busy employer, looking through a large pile of CVs, sees an ethnic name and unconsciously marks them down as a higher risk, so they’re far less likely to ask for an interview.

(It’s not all statistical discrimination, of course. Some of them are just bigoted jerks. But the statistical part is there, and it’s the bit we should care about more because it’s beneficial)

In the same way, a customer looking at your website is going to make a lightning decision. Do you look like the kind of company they want to give their money to?

Much as I hate to say it, that decision’s largely based on the design. The copy is all about the details, and is there to confirm they’ve made a good call. Against a range of websites which all fall into a customer’s ‘green’ camp, it’ll make you stand out from the crowd.

But if that first impression is bad, all the clever words in the world aren’t going to help you more than getting it fixed.