“Pride and Prejudice” Revisited: An Interview with Andras Tilcsik

Andras Tilcsik is a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Behavior at Harvard University. His paper, “Pride and Prejudice: Employment Discrimination against Openly Gay Men in the United States” won the 2011 James D. Thompson Award from the Organizations, Occupations, and Work section of the American Sociological Association and was recently published in the American Journal of Sociology.  The following (after the jump) is the text of an interview recently conducted with Andras by Rachel Gorab, a Ph.D. student in the sociology program at Northeastern University.

Rachael Gorab: What are your general research interests, and what led you to explore the specific question of hiring discrimination against openly gay men? How long did this study take you to complete?

Andras Tilcsik: I am generally interested in how institutional and organizational contexts shape attainment processes. My specific interest in conducting this study stemmed from two sources: first, my interest in the broader audit literature on employment discrimination, and second, the relative lack of attention to empirical evidence in the public debate about LGBT employment rights. I believe that, despite their limitations, audit studies in the employment arena are potentially very powerful because they allow us to study real employers (as opposed to, say, college sophomores) making what they believe to be real decisions (rather than hypothetical decisions in a lab experiment or on a survey). If you look at recent audit studies by Devah Pager and her colleagues on race and criminal record, or Shelley Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik on the motherhood penalty, for example, it is clear that well-designed audit studies have a lot to contribute to our understanding of labor market inequalities. The type of evidence that audit studies enable us to gather, however, was largely missing from the literature on the employment situation of LGBT individuals, especially gay men.

Collecting the data took about half a year, but planning the experiment, coding the observations, analyzing the data, and writing up the results took significantly longer than that.

Rachael: Your study is one of the first to look at hiring discrimination (as opposed to other forms of employment discrimination) as a source of inequality amongst LGBT workers (specifically gay men). Is this, in your opinion, the most prominent or important form of workplace discrimination that LGBT individuals face?

Andras: That is, of course, an empirical question, and I do not have the answer. Employment discrimination can take many forms and may occur at different stages — from the callback and hiring stages to wage setting to promotions and terminations, for example. We don’t know very much about the relative importance of these different processes and how their importance might vary across contexts — for example, across different occupations or different legal environments. But there has certainly been a lot of important research on employment discrimination against LGBT people — not just in sociology but also in economics, psychology, and other fields — so we know that several mechanisms operate at the same time. What an audit experiment allows us to do is to isolate one of these mechanisms — callback discrimination — from the messy empirical reality of other relevant processes

Rachael: Do you plan on conducting any future research on hiring discrimination against other groups within the LGBT population? How do you think hiring discrimination might be different for lesbians, bisexual, or transgendered individuals?

Andras: Yes, I think that might be a logical next step. Others have already done some of that work before my study; for example, the labor economist Doris Weichselbaumer used audit techniques to study discrimination against lesbian job seekers in Austria in the early 2000s. Yet, how exactly the extent and patterns of callback discrimination might vary across different LGBT groups is an open question. Existing audit studies, including mine, have not looked at discrimination against multiple LGBT groups at the same time, so it is difficult to make comparisons. A related area for future audit research concerns intersectionality; for example, between race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Rachael: Were there any challenges or disadvantages associated with using an audit method that were specific to your study?

Andras: Yes, there are some significant challenges associated with using audit methods to study discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The main challenge is to find a way to signal sexual orientation on a résumé without introducing significant omitted variables into the analysis. Of course, audit researchers must often tackle similar problems, so this problem is not unique to the study of sexual orientation discrimination. For example, if you use distinctively African American names to signal race, there is a worry that you might also be sending a signal about social class and socioeconomic status. Or, as Pager explains, when you are signaling a history of incarceration, a lot of care is needed to avoid sending inadvertent human capital signals at the same time.

In the case of sexual orientation, this issue of signaling can be especially problematic. One key problem is that disclosing any potential evidence of sexual orientation on a résumé might be seen as tactless behavior and might be disapproved of even by employers who otherwise hold no bias against gay employees. There is also a worry that some signals of sexual orientation on a résumé, such as affiliation with an LGBT group, could also send a signal about the job seeker’s political views, making it difficult to untangle political discrimination from sexual orientation discrimination. So, a key task was to find an appropriate “treatment” signal as well as a suitable “control” signal. In the paper, I discuss this issue in detail both when I describe the rationale for the experimental design and when I consider these issues in light of the empirical findings that emerged from the study.

Rachael: Your results show significant geographical variation (on a state-by-state basis) in hiring discrimination against gay applicants. Employers in states with antidiscrimination laws on the books were less likely to engage in discrimination, though this was not statistically significant after you controlled for state-level attitudes. From your perspective, how does this reflect on the potential for antidiscrimination legislation to reduce LGBT inequality in the workplace? Why is it so difficult to distinguish between the effects of state-level attitudes and the presence of anti-discrimination laws on hiring discrimination?

Andras: Given the relatively small number of states in my sample, and the lack of a good fine-grained local measure of attitudes toward employing LGBT people, I would be very cautious about reading too much into the finding that, net of state-level attitudes, anti-discrimination laws didn’t have a significant effect. Obviously, states and cities with more tolerant popular attitudes toward LGBT people are also more likely to pass anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT people, so it is difficult to figure out the relative importance of laws versus attitudes. What further complicates the issue is that, even if laws don’t have a direct effect on discrimination, they might have an indirect effect through their influence on social attitudes because there is a potential for joint causality between laws and attitudes. To tackle this question conclusively, we’ll need to explore the relationship between social attitudes and anti-discrimination laws over time and perhaps conduct multiple audit studies in a given area over time.

Rachael: To you, what was the most interesting finding that emerged from your study?

Andras: I was quite surprised by the extent to which it was possible to predict the likelihood of callback discrimination using just a few key words in the sections of the job ads that describe the employer’s ideal job candidate — words like “aggressive” or “assertive,” for example. This suggests that callback discrimination against openly gay men might be rooted, at least partly, in specific stereotypes about gay men and doesn’t simply reflect a general antipathy toward them.

Rachael: What research project(s) do you now have in the works?

Andras: A fellow doctoral student at Harvard, Sameer Srivastava, and I am currently conducting a set of experiments to examine the conditions under which people activate their social ties in order to help a friend or acquaintance to identify vacancies and find a job. We are particularly interested in the role that potentially stigmatizing marks, such as physical scars, obesity, or a history of unemployment or incarceration, might play in this regard. This work is related to my audit study both in its topic and its basic empirical approach but examines discrimination at an even earlier stage in the employment process: the stage of the job search even before the job seeker submits a résumé. In addition, a very early-stage collaborative project — with John Almandoz (IESE), Kathleen McGinn (Harvard), and Chris Winship (Harvard) — aims to examine how insights from cognitive psychology may be used to create simple and effective remedies for implicit bias in employment decisions, especially at the résumé-screening stage. Finally, in a very different line of research, I am collaborating with Chris Marquis (Harvard) to study organizational responses to various institutional pressures in the context of corporate philanthropy since the mid-1950s.

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