Meet Khadija Diouf. She is 24 years old, she’s single, she lives in France and she has spent the last three years working in secretarial and accounting jobs. Her surname tells us that she’s descended from Senegalese immigrants, and her first name strongly suggests that she’s Muslim. Hundreds of employers across France will have seen Khadija’s name and none of them would have known the most important thing about her: she doesn’t exist.
Khadija is one of three fake women invented by Claire Adida from the University of California, San Diego. They are all part of a clever experiment that reveals how the French job market is rife with discrimination against Muslims. Adida found that in at least two sectors, a Muslim candidate is around 2.5 times less likely to get a job interview than a Christian one, with all else being equal. These results were backed up by a large survey, which showed that among second-generation Senegalese immigrants, Muslim households earn far less than Christian equivalents.
It’s been a big week. With a simple words, Barack Obama became the first black President of a country whose history has been so haunted by the spectre of racial prejudice. His election and inauguration are undoubtedly proud moments but they must not breed complacency. Things may be changing outwardly, but problems remain.
For a start, it goes without saying that many people, even the most liberal and left-wing among us, still harbour unconscious prejudices against members of other races. These “implicit biases” may be hidden, but their effects are often not. For example, a study published last year showed that unconscious biases can hold greater sway over a person’s voting decisions than their conscious, rational preferences.
Their influence becomes apparent even when we simply look at people of other races. It’s a well-known fact that people generally find it more difficult to distinguish between the faces of people from other ethnic groups than those of their own. This so-called “other-race effect” is the phenomenon behind claims that “they all look the same”. But looks are in the eye of the beholder and the other-race effect can be negated through experience with members of different races. For example, African infants who are adopted by white families develop a bias in distinguishing between faces that matches those of white children.
Sophie Lebrecht from Brown University sensed a link between poorer facial discrimination and greater racial discrimination. Her idea is simple: if someone finds it hard to tell the difference between people of a certain race, they will be more likely to characterise that entire group with broad stereotypes. When the lines between individuals blur, generalities start seeping in and implicit biases have a stronger influence. But if that’s the case, there may be a way around it – indeed, Lebrecht found that by training people to better discriminate between faces of other races, she could help to reduce their biased attitudes towards those races.