Research Article: Can immigrants counteract employer discrimination? A factorial field experiment reveals the immutability of ethnic hierarchies

Date Published: July 24, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Kåre Vernby, Rafaela Dancygier, Semih Tumen.


How pervasive is labor market discrimination against immigrants and what options do policymakers and migrants have to reduce it? To answer these questions, we conducted a field experiment on employer discrimination in Sweden. Going beyond existing work, we test for a large range of applicant characteristics using a factorial design. We examine whether migrants can affect their employment chances—by adopting citizenship, acquiring work experience, or signaling religious practice—or whether fixed traits such as country of birth or gender are more consequential. We find little systematic evidence that immigrants can do much to reduce discrimination. Rather, ethnic hierarchies are critical: callback rates decline precipitously with the degree of ethno-cultural distance, leaving Iraqis and Somalis, especially if they are male, with much reduced employment chances. These findings highlight that immigrants have few tools at their disposal to escape ethnic penalties and that efforts to reduce discrimination must address employer prejudice.

Partial Text

The economic integration of immigrants is one of the most pressing policy issues facing Europe today. Though many Western European countries have experienced large-scale migration for decades, their records of integrating migrants into domestic labor markets remain patchy. Millions of immigrants and their descendants remain unemployed or underpaid [1]. As a result, a growing literature has begun to investigate barriers to immigrants’ economic success, with one strand focusing on the hurdles that migrants encounter during the hiring process. This research has consistently found that job applicants with immigrant origins are less likely to be invited to interviews than are natives [2].

Using a factorial field experiment, our study has gone beyond most existing work in simultaneously testing the impact of a number of factors on discrimination in the hiring process. Our results paint a bleak picture: We find substantial evidence in support of employer discrimination against immigrants and no consistent evidence that immigrants can reduce this discrimination by acquiring citizenship or investing in job-related experience. Ethnic hierarchies decisively influence immigrants’ employment prospects. Though employers discriminate against all immigrant groups, callback rates decline significantly with the degree of socio-cultural and ethnic distance, leaving Iraqis and especially Somalis with much reduced employment chances. Moreover, among these groups, men fare particularly poorly. It bears repeating that Somali men only receive callbacks to 2.5 percent of applications, while the comparable number is 19 percent for Swedish men. Compared to these ascriptive traits, the effects of malleable traits are much smaller, and the confidence intervals surrounding these effects are wide.




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