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Why Is It Difficult to Recognize Discrimination?

The conviction that everyone has equal opportunities sustains bias

We think we know what discrimination looks like

Research in psychology reveals that we not only hold implicit stereotypes about individuals and groups, we also have stereotypical views about the way bias and discrimination typically emerge. We assume that bias is visible from specific cues, for instance when someone explicitly voices negative opinions about certain social groups, and/or withholds desired resources or important opportunities from individuals motivated by their group membership. Common examples of such statements are men saying: “women are not fit for leadership”, local citizens saying “migrants are not qualified for these jobs”, or heterosexuals saying “we don’t want our teachers to be gay”. Existing legal guidelines tend to rely on these stereotypical views of what discrimination looks like. They make it possible to sanction those who explicitly refer to group-based features to motivate individual employment decisions (e.g., “we didn’t offer you a promotion because you are a woman”, “we didn’t offer you the job because you are a foreigner”).

Modern forms of discrimination are not easily recognized

Due to anti-discrimination laws and social desirability concerns, many people no longer express such blatantly biased views. This makes it more difficult to ‘prove’ unfair treatment, or to file a discrimination complaint that will hold up in the courtroom. This doesn’t mean biased judgments have disappeared, or that they no longer influence the decisions we make or the outcomes people achieve. Modern discrimination simply tends to emerge in more subtle and implicit ways (this candidate just does not seem to ‘have what it takes’), couched in positive terms (‘women deserve to be protected by men’), or motivated by referring to seemingly essential features (‘it is not in their culture’, ‘they are biologically predisposed’). At the same time, empirical studies consistently reveal that perpetrators as well as targets of biased treatment have difficulty recognizing discriminatory views that are expressed in subtle, implicit, or seemingly positive ways – because this does not match the stereotype we have about what discrimination looks like. Further, many of such views are so ingrained from childhood and socially reinforced, that they tend to be widely shared. When women agree that women are vulnerable, or when ethnic minorities acknowledge they are culturally different from the majority, we find it even more difficult to realize these also exemplify stereotypical judgments that contribute to unequal treatment of individuals based on their group membership – and can be a root of discrimination.

Implicit bias persists

The fact that we tend not to see discrimination when it occurs does not mean it no longer exists. Despite endorsement of equal opportunities, and ambitions to select and reward people based on individual merit alone, evidence of implicitly biased treatment has piled up during the past decades. This has been empirically established in many ways – in academic contexts mostly by comparing achievements and career paths of men and women. For instance, studies show that perceived math abilities of female students are underestimated and of male students overestimated in relation to their grades, that female teachers receive less favorable evaluations than male teachers in all disciplines, that female scholars are less likely than men to achieve tenure or be honored with an endowed chair - even if they have equal records of scholarly achievement. Further, studies have shown that male scholars have a greater likelihood of being awarded research grants, receive more grant money, and are more likely to receive research awards, while female scholars on average spend more time on teaching and committee work, and are more likely to receive service awards. Experimental designs, that allow researchers to keep constant information provided about actual behaviors (e.g. student interactions in an online course) and achievements (e.g., grades, publication records, products delivered), and only change the alleged sex of the target that is evaluated, replicate these findings and further demonstrate that differential ratings can only be attributed to gender-based interpretations of objective information provided, as these do not reflect actual differences in displays of ability, performance, or motivation.

The meritocracy illusion

Notwithstanding this evidence to the contrary, the common belief is that the academic community evaluates and awards individual merit alone. Yet, individuals present in these situations can easily observe that members of some groups are less likely to be successful than others. Everyone can see that fewer women achieve tenure and advancement opportunities and that more male than female scholars receive research grants or other honors. In combination with the emphasis on individual merit as the main criterion determining these outcomes, this makes it easy to think that there is something about women that makes them less likely to be successful in an academic career. Maintaining the conviction that the university system rewards academic achievement alone only makes this worse: If the system is just, and all individuals receive equal opportunities to excel, then the observation that women are less successful than men can only imply that women are somehow less talented and motivated than male scholars. Denying unequal treatment while it is clear members of different groups receive unequal outcomes also is a form of discrimination, as it implicitly conveys that members of some groups are essentially less deserving than others.

What’s the harm?

It is tempting to think that people cannot suffer from discriminatory treatment as long as they do not realize they are being discriminated. Research convincingly shows this is not the case. Meta-analyses capturing results from many studies have revealed that subtle and implicit discrimination often is equally or even more harmful for well-being and performance motivation than more blatant displays of discriminatory treatment. How can this be? Denial of group-based discrimination while unequal treatment persists, reinforces the view that members of some groups are inherently less competent, motivated, or deserving than others. This causes individuals representing these groups to be afforded less confidence in their abilities, less credit for their achievements, and fewer opportunities for growth. For instance, research reveals that senior female academics experience less support from the organization and its leadership than senior male academics. They also indicate having had to make more difficult life choices and personal sacrifices for their career than their male colleagues. Junior women see this and do not consider senior women as attractive role models, despite their career success. More generally, observing that other members of their group have to overcome additional hurdles in order to be successful easily causes people to become discouraged from trying the same. While the decision to ‘opt out’ may seem to confirm the view that these individuals just are less motivated, it is just as much the result of anticipating less return on investment, due to the way other members of their group are treated by the organization.

Common pitfalls

As long as equal outcomes are not in sight, symbolic endorsements of equal treatment only make it more difficult to identify instances of bias. Research shows this makes people less vigilant for implicit bias, less tolerant of complaints about unequal treatment, and less critical of current procedures. Relying on those who are disadvantaged to call out incidences of unequal treatment, and assuming all is well as long as this doesn’t happen neglects research evidence showing that perpetrators as well as targets of discrimination avoid acknowledging and reporting discrimination when it occurs because this undermines well-being and just world beliefs. Even those reporting legitimate concerns tend to be seen as complainers.

What can be done?

Experimental evidence also reveals how these pitfalls can be avoided. The simple act of acknowledging that discrimination may persist despite people’s best intentions is a key step in this process. Explicitly reassuring people that their individual and group features are valued – despite implicit indications that suggest otherwise, having men communicate that women might be disadvantaged instead of relying on women to complain about their treatment, and expressing the desire to learn from the identification of faulty procedures and to adapt inappropriate criteria, can all contribute to this. Even if it is difficult if not impossible to prevent the emergence of biased judgments, research shows that individuals are more motivated to persist in their efforts and ambitions, more ready to communicate about problems they perceive, and actually perform better (e.g. on intelligence tests) when they are made aware that others in the organization have confidence in their abilities, when advantaged group members express their readiness to call out unequal treatment, and when the organization is open to suggestions to improve its procedures.


On the origins and consequences of gender stereotypes:

Ellemers, N. (2018). Gender stereotypes. Annual Review of Psychology, 69, 275-298.

On the recognition of implicit bias:

Ellemers, N., & Barreto, M. (2015). Modern discrimination: How perpetrators and targets interactively perpetuate social disadvantage. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 142-146.

On the impact of subtle discrimination:

Jones, K.P., Peddie, C.I., Gilrane, V.L., King, E.B., & Gray, A.L. (2016). Not so subtle: A meta-analytic investigation of the correlates of subtle and overt discrimination. Journal of Management, 42, 1588-1613.

See also:…

On the relation between implicit bias and career motivation:

Ellemers, N. (2014). Women at work: How organizational features impact career development. Policy Insights from Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 46-54.

On career experiences of women:

Faniko, K., Ellemers, N., Derks, B., & Lorenzi-Cioldi, F. (2017). Nothing changes, really: Why women who break through the glass ceiling end up reinforcing it. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 638-651.

On the pitfalls of symbolic diversity statements:

Kaiser, C.R., Major, B., Jurcevic, I., Dover, T.L., Brady, L.M., & Shapiro, J.R. (2013). Presumed fair: Ironic effects of organizational diversity structures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 504-519.

See also:…

On practical interventions:

Walton, G. M., Logel, C., Peach, J. M., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2015). Two brief interventions to mitigate a “chilly climate” transform women’s experience, relationships, and achievement in engineering. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107, 468-485.

See also:…

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