a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Tag: discrimination

Is it justified for firms to offer prestige based rewards to some employees?

Consider the following excerpt from an article written by a former student at the University of Oxford –

“The green and lush lawns of the colleges you observe are due to the policy Oxford has maintained for centuries of allowing only professors to step on the grass. Everyone is obliged to keep walking along the concrete path, even when talking to a professor who may be walking through the grass. The rule is indeed odd one since it creates a certain one-manship between the professors and other teaching and supporting staff, as well as students.” 

I argue that this rule, which I refer to as ‘restrictive lawn policy’ henceforth, is not merely odd but it is also morally objectionable. 

Invisible discrimination: the double role of implicit bias

In this post, Katharina Berndt Rasmussen (Stockholm University & Institute for Futures Studies) discusses her recently published article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy (co-authored by Nicolas Olsson Yaouzis) exploring the roles that implicit bias and social norms play in discriminating hiring practices.

The US, like many other countries, is marked by pervasive racial inequalities, not least in the job market. Yet many US Americans, when asked directly, uphold egalitarian “colour-blind” norms: one’s race shouldn’t matter for one’s chances to get hired. Sure enough, there is substantial disagreement about whether it (still) does matter, but most agree that it shouldn’t. Given such egalitarian attitudes, one would expect there to be very little hiring discrimination. The puzzle is how then to explain the racial inequalities in hiring outcomes.

A second puzzle is the frequent occurrence of complaints about “reverse discrimination” in contexts such as the US. “You only got the job because you’re black” is a reaction familiar to many who do get a prestigious job while being black, as it were. Why are people so suspicious when racial minorities are hired?

In a recent paper, my colleague Nicolas Olsson Yaouzis and I offer an explanation for both puzzles: we model the workings of implicit racial bias in a population of egalitarian norm followers. Implicit biases have been shown to affect basically all of us. They are, roughly, automatically activated stereotypes about social groups. They are often unnoticed and unendorsed by their bearers. And they correlate with social inequalities on population levels. But how, exactly, should we understand the underlying mechanism? Here’s our model:

Imagine a big firm consisting of a large number of subsections, each headed by a manager. From time to time these managers hire new people. Assume that the firm was initially all-white (think of the early sixties Mad Men era). Managers knew that there was some great competence among the black applicants, which would benefit the firm overall. Still, each preferred to head a racially homogenous subsection, because it saved them trouble. They were thus all trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma: each doing what was (supposedly) better for them, while the firm missed out on competence.

Social norms solve prisoner’s dilemmas. Suppose that (in the early seventies) the managers become aware of an egalitarian social norm: “When hiring, hire the most competent candidate, regardless of their race”. This norm changes their incentives: as long as they believe that enough others will both comply with it and expect them in turn to comply, they want to comply with it themselves. Imagine now that each manager comes to believe this about the other managers. Each then complies with the egalitarian norm and hires black applicants whenever they are the most competent. Slowly, the racial composition of the firm will change.

However, if there are implicit racial biases among the managers, this will sometimes distort their actions. They want to comply with the norm but sometimes make mistakes. Due to the nature of implicit bias these mistakes are asymmetrical. That is, they sometimes occur when the most qualified candidate is black (such that a white candidate is hired instead), but never occur when the most qualified candidate is white (such that a black candidate would be hired).

Now, assume that there are many decisions and many managers, so mistakes add up. This could, on the whole, explain large scale hiring inequalities. But this would mean that each of them, observing that the egalitarian norm is violated time and again, would cease to believe that enough others complied with it. Moreover, observing that such frequent norm violations are not met with protests by the others, each manager would cease to believe that enough others expect them in turn to comply. Then, each would no longer want to comply and the norm would break down.

Yet this is not what seems to happen. Rather, the norm stays in place (people uphold the norm when asked) and large-scale hiring discrimination persists (causing the pervasive racial inequalities). Our model can account for this, by illuminating the intricate interplay between implicit bias and job competence. To see this, consider a specific recruitment case, where the most competent candidate is black. Their race is a clearly observable feature – their competence typically is not. Suppose that the hiring manager makes an implicit bias-mistake and hires a less competent white candidate. The other managers likely cannot directly observe that a norm violation has taken place. They can, however, observe the successful candidate’s race. If they (like most of us) hold implicit racial biases, they may perceive the white candidate as more competent than they actually are, and (falsely) infer that the egalitarian norm was followed. Thus no one protests, and no one changes their belief that enough others comply with the norm and expect them in turn to comply. The norm may be repeatedly violated, but does not break down. This explains the first puzzle.

Now consider the same case, but suppose the manager doesn’t make a mistake. The most competent black candidate is hired. Again, the others can observe the candidate’s race but not their competence. Again, if they hold implicit racial biases, they may perceive the black candidate as less competent than they actually are – and (falsely) infer that the egalitarian norm was violated. If this happens repeatedly, observers might eventually (falsely) conclude that the egalitarian norm has come to be replaced with a norm of “political correctness”: “When hiring, hire the most qualified minority candidate (to increase firm diversity)”. This explains the second puzzle.

In sum, we propose a toy model of hiring decisions. Those are, of course, much more complex in real life. Still, the model helps us see the double role of implicit bias: in the hiring decisions themselves, and in bystander evaluations of these decisions. It solves the two puzzles by explaining how hiring discrimination can be invisible in seemingly egalitarian social contexts — and why instead non-discrimination may appear suspicious.

A final word: in a world where explicit racism is on the rise, why worry about implicit bias? Our analysis does not imply that explicit racism doesn’t matter (and we certainly think it does). It just shows that focusing narrowly on eradicating explicit racism will not be enough.

Katharina Berndt Rasmussen

Language, justice, and linguistic prejudice in academia

Guest Post by Sergi Morales-Gálvez and Josep Soler

This post provides a tentative view about the justice issues that arise from linguistic prejudice in academia. It introduces the plights that affect non-native English speakers, and how these may count as forms of epistemic injustice.

Image by Melk Hagelslag from Pixabay (Free to use under Content License)

Have you ever had something to say at the tip of your tongue, but you momentarily forget the correct word to express it? We are sure that’s an experience many of us are familiar with. For people who speak two, three or even more languages on a regular basis, this can be a frequent occurrence. This is, at least, our experience as speakers of Catalan, Spanish, English, and other languages. Although a momentary lapse like this does not mean that someone is not a capable speaker of a particular language, it might be interpreted negatively.

Small in the City: The Exclusion of Children from Public Spaces

by Nico Brando and Katarina Pitasse-Fragoso

I know what it’s like to be small in the city…The streets are always busy. It can make your brain feel like there’s too much stuff in it.

Sydney Smith – Small in the City

Don’t look by Cristian Blanxer & Victor Garcia Delgado

More than a billion children grow up in cities. This means growing up in densely populated areas with political, and cultural prosperity, but with radical inequalities. While some have access to parks, playgrounds, and child-friendly streets, others are forced to navigate crowded roads, deal with violence, and difficult (sexist, racist, ageist) environments. Children are among the various groups (think, as well, of individuals with disabilities, the elderly, or animals) who suffer from discrimination in their right to make use of public spaces safely. Especially in large urban areas, public spaces can be highly threatening to children of all ages. Smaller children suffer from lack of accessibility, and high risk of busy roads. Older children and youths, even if able of navigating urban areas alone, can have their free movement limited due to status offences, insecurity and violence.

In this short reflection, we wish to introduce some preliminary thoughts on the issues that affect children living in urban spaces. Why are children excluded from equal use of public spaces? Do children have a right to responsive and inclusive urban design?

Replying to the reverse discrimination objection: a context-depended argument rather than an abstract one

Last month, Magazine Luiza, a Brazilian department store that specialises in selling electronics and home items, published a trainee call intended only for young and black candidates. According to Luiza Trajano, president of the administration council, this initiative could prove a better anti-discriminatory policy than other programmes adopted by the company in the past (they currently have 53% of blacks in its staff. But only 16% of them hold leadership positions). Luiza Trajano’s company seeks to ensure more diversity in top positions whilst, at the same time taking action against structural racism in Brazil. The company’s new trainee programme, however, has been the subject of judicial action and criticism from a part of the general population, who claim that it embodies an unfair policy that discriminates against white candidates.

“Level playing fields”: a misguided complaint about discrimination against well-off women

This is the third, and last, of a series of three posts about gender justice and conflicts of interest between women who belong to different classes. In the first post I argued that priority should be given to the worse off women: When a particular policy (which is otherwise justified) would benefit poor, or working class, women, there is a strong presumption in favour of that policy even if it would, at the same time, set back the interests of better off women. Many care-supporting policies are like this: The very mechanism that makes them work in favour of those women from low socio-economicbackgrounds who are saddled with care duties leads to the reinforcement of statistical discrimination and other biases against professional women.

Why Should Children Have the Right to Vote?

Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License. (C) www.kremlin.ru


The debate on lowering the age of enfranchisement has become a hot topic during the last couple of decades. Countries like Argentina, Austria, Brazil or Scotland, for example, have lowered their voting age to 16. Many others, such as Estonia, Malta or some German Landen, have lowered it for local elections. Arguing for the need to enfranchise 16- and 17-years old seems like a very reasonable claim. Recent research on adolescent brain development has shown that a 16-year-old has the same abilities for cold cognition as any adult. Thus, adolescents are equally equipped to make an informed choice when voting. Why, then, would it be justified to limit their rights as political citizens just because of their age?

I think few would disagree with the arguments in favour of a 16-year-old’s right to vote. But what if we go a bit further, and were to abolish age-thresholds for enfranchisement altogether? Is it such an absurd idea to claim that a 6-year-old should be allowed to vote, as David Runciman argues? What reasons do we have to justify her exclusion? And, what are the reasons for claiming that she should have this right ensured?

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