- Aislinn Bohren, PhD — Associate Professor of Economics, University of Pennsylvania
423 Guardian Drive
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Systemic Discrimination: Theory and Measurement
Attendees may attend virtually. Zoom link here.
Abstract: Economics tends to define and measure discrimination as disparities stemming from the direct effects of protected group membership. But work in other fields notes that such measures are incomplete, as they can miss important systemic (indirect) channels. For example, racial disparities in criminal records due to discrimination in policing can lead to disparate outcomes for equally-qualified job applicants despite a race-neutral hiring rule. We develop new tools for modeling and measuring such systemic forms of discrimination. We formalize systemic discrimination as disparities arising from differences in non-group characteristics, such as criminal records, among equally-qualified individuals. Systemic disparities can arise both from differences in signaling technologies and differences in opportunities for skill development. Standard tools for measuring direct discrimination, such as audit or correspondence studies, cannot detect systemic discrimination. Instead, we propose a measure based on a decomposition of total discrimination—disparities among equally-qualified individuals—into direct and systemic components. To bring this decomposition to data, we develop a novel experimental paradigm and apply it in a series of hiring experiments and a lab-in-the-field study using real hiring managers. Our findings highlight how discrimination in one domain, due to either accurate beliefs or bias, can drive persistent disparities through systemic channels—even when direct discrimination is eliminated.