Friday, November 29, 2013

How and when do we discriminate?

After sending off 50 unsuccessful letters applying for apartments in a suburb of Zurich, Nikola Jovanovic (pictured on the right) had had enough. He contacted Blick newspaper and said he was considering changing his name. If he had a Swiss sounding name, he claimed, he would not have had any trouble finding a place to live.

Today, Dr. Katrin Ausprung, presented a more systematic approach to the same problem. When adverts came out for houses and apartments, she sent two emails from different addresses enquiring about availability. In one of the emails she gave the enquiring person a German name and the other email a Turkish name. She then waited to see whether or not they got back to her. In one study in Munich, 70.3% of landlords replied to emails of Germans, while 61.5% replied to Turks. A moderate, but highly significant, difference. Other studies throughout Germany show a similar pattern.

This type of study, where researchers apply for jobs or accommodation using false identifications, differing in terms of ethnicity or gender, have recently become a popular tool for detecting discrimination. They are useful for getting at the mechanisms. For example, Katrin identified overpriced properties in her study and found that landlords of these were less discriminatory.  You can avoid being discriminated against, but you have to pay for it.

In other situations, even being better than your competitors isn’t enough. In a study of the Swedish job market, Moa Bursell and co-workers showed that when African and Arabic men apply for a job with CVs containing one to three more years of relevant work experience than their Swedish counterparts, the Swedes are still 2.6 times more likely to get a call back.

A strength of these studies is that they are easy to relate to from our own experiences. By coincidence, at the mathematics department staff meeting on Tuesday, we discussed a study in which scientific researchers were sent CVs to assess for a position as a lab assistant. The only difference between the CVs was that on half of them the name was ‘Jenny’, on the other half the name was ‘John’. The academics replied in the questionnaire that John deserved to be paid about $30,000, while Jenny should start on $26,000. John was apparently more competent and hireable than Jenny. This made uncomfortable reading for the members of our extremely male-dominated department. Without this type of scientific study it is easy to attribute all sorts of factors to explain the gender make-up of a workplace. Using a scientific study we can see that discrimination occurs right at the start of an academic career.

A question that mathematical modelling can help to answer is whether the effects discrimination measured at the individual-level are sufficient to account for the segregation seen in society. Individuals with Turkish background tend to live in certain suburbs of German cities and not in others. Can this be explained by discrimination when looking for a new apartment? It appears that in Katrin’s study the answer is ‘no’, the difference just wasn’t strong enough. Other differences, such as discrimination against high-immigrant areas by renters, are likely to play a more important role. More work is needed to get to the bottom of how the different actions and interactions of individuals produce segregation patterns.

We all have to be careful how we discriminate. Next week's IFFS seminar guest is Frank Schweitzer from Jovanovic's new home town of Zurich. I hope I would still have invited him if his name ended in 'ic' instead.

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