How Benefiting From Discrimination Contributes to Inequality
Legally speaking, discrimination involves choosing people for a job (or other opportunity) based on a protected class or identity—for instance sex, race, or age. Ample research has shown that discrimination creates inequality by holding some back while lifting others up. That is—discrimination happens both via disfavoring or favoring one group. And these two processes are yoked. When Juan gets selected due to his sex, or when Alejandra gets rejected due to her sex, Juan gets the job in either case. However, when we talk about discrimination, we seem to mostly talk about the victims (those who get rejected due to their identity), rather than those who are benefitting from it (those who get selected due to their identity).
Why Do We See The Victims More Than The Beneficiaries?
We asked people to describe an unfair hiring experience and to define discrimination. In both cases, we found that people are much more likely to think about disfavoring examples and definitions—emphasizing rejecting someone due to their identity. This means people neglected to consider the beneficiaries or favoring side of discrimination.
Then, we conducted several experiments. In each study, people read about a hiring decision that came down to two candidates, Alex (who came from an advantaged group, such identifying as male, or White, or straight) and Taylor (who came from a marginalized group, such as identifying as female, or a person of color, or LGBT). For half of the participants, the decision was framed in terms of disfavoring—one candidate was rejected due to their specific identity. The other half read the same hiring decision, but framed in terms of favoring—one candidate was selected due to their identity. In the end, whether due to disfavoring Taylor or favoring Alex, Alex always got the job. We used a wide variety of hiring decision details, including gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and even alma mater or favorite sports team. In another study, we also used hiring decisions that came from U.S. Supreme Court cases about discrimination. Across all of these different variations, people consistently saw the favoring-framed hiring decision as more fair and less discriminatory, compared to the disfavoring-framed decision. Even experts—such as lawyers and hiring managers—were less likely to recognize favoring-framed discrimination as discrimination.
How To Fix This?
Next, we set about trying to fix this lack of recognition. We found that the reason people, even experts, tend to discount favoring discrimination is because it changes how they see the decision-maker’s intentions. When the boss favors someone—even for an illegal reason, like due to their protected identity—people still see the boss as having positive intentions or trying to be helpful. When the boss disfavors someone, people are more likely to see this as reflecting negative intentions. Despite the fact favoring Alex and disfavoring Taylor lead to the same discrimination outcome, people feel like the presumed intentions difference makes favoring less discriminatory. In this way, beneficiaries of discrimination may go relatively unnoticed. In fact, we find that this perception of positive intentions even leads people to be less likely to want to report favoring-based discrimination to authorities and less likely to support litigation against the decision-maker.
This is a very sticky problem—it’s hard to get people to separate their beliefs about positive intentions from their assessment of discrimination. Even when we ask people who saw the favoring type of discrimination to really focus on the harm caused to the victim or to take the rejected candidate’s perspective, people still see favoring as positively intended, and thus as less discriminatory. If we instead highlight that the decision maker had selfish ulterior motives (such as favoring someone because they wanted to get a favor in return), this starts to make people more suspicious of the intentions, and more likely to notice favoring as discriminatory.
Discrimination does not just produce victims, but also beneficiaries. Although this is obvious, what’s not so obvious is people’s tendency not to see this equivalence for what it is.
For Further Reading
Phillips, L. T., & Jun, S. (2021). Why benefiting from discrimination is less recognized as discrimination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
L. Taylor Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations at New York University Stern School of Business. She studies beliefs about inequity, especially how people think about privilege and advantage.
Sora Jun is an Assistant Professor of Organizations at University of Texas, Dallas Jindal School of Management. She studies beliefs about racial hierarchies, particularly those involving multiple groups.