Many correspondence audit studies of labour market discrimination have been published in recent years. My research with Siel Vermeiren and Stijn Baert, which appeared in the January 2023 issue of European Economic Review, synthesises the data from virtually all correspondence audit tests conducted around the world between 2005 and 2020. It thus gives a bird’s-eye view of the extent of hiring discrimination on various grounds of discrimination. How do, for example, age discrimination and ethnic discrimination compare? Are there regional differences? And does hiring discrimination decrease over time?

Recent scientific research on hiring discrimination mainly relies on the tried-and-true method of the correspondence experiment. This method typically involves sending out pairs of fictitious resumes to actual job postings, assigning a particular minority characteristic to either candidate. The responses of employers or recruiters to these resumes are then compared to measure hiring discrimination.

Such research has been conducted worldwide and on numerous grounds of discrimination in recent years. More than 900,000 fictitious job applications were included from 2005 to 2020, captured in international scholarly publications. However, each correspondence experiment captures only part of the hiring discrimination in a given labour market context.

Therefore, we reanalysed the available data from these field tests using a so-called meta-analysis. In this meta-analysis, we calculate weighted averages of the discrimination statistics that consider, among other things, the sample size of the individual correspondence tests. Ultimately, we arrive at some remarkable findings regarding differences between discrimination grounds, regions and over time.

Physical attractiveness pays off in the labour market

First and foremost, we find that hiring discrimination based on (i) employment disability (ca. 41% fewer positive responses than those without disabilities), (ii) low physical attractiveness (ca. 37% fewer positive responses), and (iii) older age (ca. 34% fewer positive responses) is at least as problematic - if not more problematic - as hiring discrimination based on ethnicity (ca. 29% fewer positive responses), which is the most studied discrimination ground.

Furthermore, there is no overall evidence of gender discrimination in hiring. In contrast, significant differences exist between correspondence tests; in some cases, hiring discrimination against women is detected, while in other cases, it is men who are discriminated against. Very recent, large-scale U.S. research confirms this discrepancy.

Moreover, across correspondence tests conducted worldwide, candidates who are open about their LGB orientation receive, on average, about 30% fewer positive responses to their job applications.

An important note about the results is that there are many differences within discrimination grounds. Regarding the ethnicity discrimination ground, for example, applicants with a Maghreb Arab or Middle Eastern background receive, on average, about 41% fewer positive responses than applicants with no migration background. At the same time, there is hardly any hiring discrimination against applicants from Northern or Western European minority groups.

Europe versus the United States

A breakdown by region reveals that hiring discrimination based on age differs substantially between Europe and the United States. In European correspondence tests, older applicants (typically around 50 years old) receive, on average, about 48% fewer positive responses than younger applicants (typically around 30 years old). This percentage is a lot lower in the United States: about 31% fewer positive responses. Interestingly, the ages and age differences used in the American correspondence tests were much higher than in the European experiments.

Still, this result is consistent with the employment rates of older workers in the respective regions. Earlier research pointed to regional differences in legal and social norms regarding working at older ages. These norms tend to be more lenient in the United States and more focused on encouraging older workers to stay in the workforce than in many European countries.

Is discrimination declining globally?

Finally, discrimination rates have barely improved over time. This finding is quite remarkable given the anti-discrimination policies in many countries and the attention paid to the problem, even at the supranational level.

The one bright spot the study uncovered, namely that ethnic discrimination would have declined in European correspondence experiments, seems to be mainly due to trends in minority groups studied. In the 2015-2020 period, applicants of European and West Asian descent received proportionately more attention, and applicants of Maghreb-Arab or Middle Eastern descent received less attention in correspondence tests than in the 2005-2014 period. At the same time, we know that the latter group is more strongly disadvantaged in the application process.

For policymakers

The meta-analysis allows policymakers and employers to specifically target those minority groups that are most disadvantaged in the selection process. The insights from the research should also raise awareness of the issue; the structural nature of hiring discrimination cannot be questioned based on this extensive analysis.

Crucially, diversity promotion measures, such as information campaigns and diversity training, focus not only on ethnicity and gender but also on, say, age. In other words, the meta-analysis underscores that “diversity in the labour market” must also be given a diverse interpretation.

This post also appeared via UGent @ Work and in various Belgian media, in Dutch. This page was last updated on 20 March 2023.