Improving diversity in the highest-ranking sectors of American society – elite college campuses and corporate boardrooms, for instance – begins with understanding where today’s disparities originate. At The University of Chicago’s annual Conference on Discrimination in the 21st Century: Fostering Conversations Across Fields, hosted jointly by the Becker Friedman Institute (BFI) and The University of Chicago Booth School of Business’ Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, scholars traced the sources and consequences of discrimination throughout the full course of the lifecycle, from early childhood through to adulthood.
“Discrimination is one of the most prominent features of our society today, and it is our duty as academics to generate insights that will help promote equal opportunities for everyone,” lead organizer Pietro Veronesi said. He was joined in his efforts by Marianne Bertrand and Alex Imas and of Chicago Booth and Conrad Miller of Berkeley Haas.
Scholars from fields spanning sociology, economics, law, and business presented early-stage research to an audience consisting of fellow faculty members as well as students, staff, and practitioners from public and private sectors, many of whom participated in the conference formally through discussions and panels where they clarified research presentations and explained their implications for policy and practice.
Presentations addressed discrimination from a broad range of perspectives, with researchers documenting disparate treatment across groups including races, genders, income levels, and castes and considering the implications of discrimination perpetrated by individuals versus organizations and systems.
By the end of the two days, the group had explored discrimination throughout the full course of the lifecycle, from early childhood to career, along the way tackling topics including affirmative action, standardized testing, and corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as methodological challenges such as counterfactuals and prediction problems and how to appropriately measure race and ethnicity.
Ursina Schaede opened the conference with a discussion of her working paper Quota vs Quality? Long-Term Gains from an Unusual Gender Quota in which she and her coauthor Ville Mankki use administrative data from Finland to show that a quota increasing the share of male primary school teachers positively impacted students’ outcomes. Followed by a discussion led by Muriel Niederle, Schaede’s presentation introduced key questions that would resurface throughout the course of the conference including equity, efficiency, and admissions quotas.
Jason Baron rounded out the discussion of early childhood with his presentation Racial Discrimination in Child Protection (joint with Joseph Doyle, Natalia Emanuel, Peter Hull, and Joseph Ryan) during the second day of the conference. He compared Black and white children with the same likelihood of being abused and found that Black children are 50% more likely to be placed in foster care. Baron went on to show that placing more at-risk white children in foster care would eliminate this gap, illustrating the importance of using data to reveal important nuances in discrimination policy debates.
Moving forward in the lifecycle, much of the conference focused on the role of discrimination in higher education. The group of scholars, typically accustomed to analyzing the world around them, did not shy away from an opportunity to turn their focus inward. Nicolas Ajzenmen caught the audience’s attention with an issue that many were familiar with, discrimination on the infamous #EconTwitter. Ashley Wong made the case for campus gender diversity in her working paper Undergraduate Gender Diversity and the Direction of Scientific Research (coauthored by Francesca Truffa) in which she showed that when campuses switched from all-male to coed, they tend to produce more gender-related research.
Peter Arcidiacono, Geoffrey Stone, Omari Swinton, Kalinda Ukanwa, took on the impending Supreme Court decision in SFFA v. Harvard in their panel “On Race Conscious Admissions Policies,” moderated by Bertrand. Swinton, who chairs the Economics Department at Howard University, warned the audience that not only would a negative decision be a death knell for race-based affirmative action, but that it would have far-reaching “trickle down effects” for the many public colleges who rely on affirmative action for their recruitment and financing.
The importance of developing the pipeline, or, recruiting and retaining students earlier in their educational trajectories, emerged as an important theme in the discussion of higher education. Such efforts were the topic of the lunchtime discussion, which was led by a group of UChicago staff consisting of Victoria Flores, Quentin Johnson, and Stephen Lamb as well as Swinton. They discussed efforts including BFI’s Expanding Diversity in Economics Summer Institute, Pathways to Research and Doctoral Careers (PREDOC.org), and the American Economics Association’s Summer Program. “Everyone in this room should have at least one young person they’re leading,” Johnson said in a call to action to the dining audience. “Pull someone in.”
Finally the conference included rich discussion of discrimination in labor markets and spheres of adulthood. Rohini Pande, Robert Perkins, Lauren Rivera, and Smita Shah closed out the first day of the conference with their panel The Economic Impact of Discrimination and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policies, moderated by Conrad Miller. “I think we take two steps forward and one back,” Perkins, Chief Global Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Mondelez International, said of recent progress on diversifying the American corporate workforce – and the corresponding backlash.
Several presenters shared research on the more subtle ways in which discrimination shapes peoples’ life trajectories during adulthood. Agustin Hurtado discussed how Asian, Black, and Hispanic-owned banks close racial disparities by expanding minority mortgage access. He also presented evidence consistent with superior information driving this effect, prompting a lively discussion among the audience about what, exactly, a minority-owned bank is. (Are the effects tied to ownership alone or additional bank features?) Benjamin Iverson presented Explaining Racial Disparities in Personal Bankruptcy Outcomes in which he revealed substantial racial disparities in bankruptcy dismissals, while Miller shared his work exposing class-based disparities and profiling in traffic stops.
In their panel Discrimination in Health, Law, and the Environment, Anita Blanchard, Trevon Logan, and Mario Small (with moderator Alex Imas) discussed how institutional discrimination differs from other forms, and outlined the various contexts in which differential treatment arises. Small discussed the felony disenfranchisement laws with explicit discriminatory intent in U.S. southern states that followed the Civil War, as well as the redlining policies introduced by the Home Owners Loan Corporation. Blanchard applied an equity lens to her medical work, detailing her efforts to improve outcomes for her patients at UChicago Medicine by educating resident physicians in training on how the determinants of health and structural racism impact patient care.
Danielle Holley was the keynote speaker. During her dinnertime address she shared her own experience as an ascendant young attorney and provided an overview of recent legal cases in discrimination.
A varied set of institutions were represented at the conference, including Brigham and Young University, Harvard University, Yale University, MIT, and Howard University as well as companies and organizations including the Federal Reserve Bank, Goldman Sachs, and Arnold Ventures.
- Read the papers presented at the conference here.
- View the documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, referenced during Agustin Hurtados’ presentation of The Effect of Minority Bank Ownership on Minority Credit, on PBS.
- Read panelist Geoffrey R. Stone’s book A Legacy of Discrimination: The Essential Constitutionality of Affirmative Action
Thursday, May 4, 2023
6th Floor Lounge
Session 1: Disparities and Education
Discrimination in the Formation of Academic Networks: A Field Experiment on #EconTwitter
Panel Discussion: On Race Conscious Admission Policies
12:40 pm-1:10 pm Lunch Presentation: Initiatives to Increase Diversity in the Academic Pipeline
Victoria Flores, University of Chicago, Leadership Alliance
Quentin Johnson, University of Chicago, Expanding Diversity of Economics
Stephen Lamb, University of Chicago, PREDOC
Omari Swinton, Howard University, AEA Summer Program
Session 2: Discrimination: Economic Impact and DEI Strategies
Panel Discussion: The Economic Impact of Discrimination and DEI Policies
Friday, May 5, 2023
6th Floor Lounge