Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? Research by Marianne Bertrand
Though racial inequality in the U.S. labor market is understood
as a persistent problem even today, it has been difficult to
measure how such discrimination works. Do employers actively
discriminate against African-American job applicants? Can such
discrimination be proven? What is the effect of improved credentials
for African-Americans? A new study offers the answers.
For most job applicants, getting called for an interview is
the first major step towards getting a job. But what if that
call never comes? Can the name listed on a resume and the perceptions
of race implied by this name hinder an applicant's chances before
even getting his or her foot in the door?
In the study "Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than
Lakisha and Jamal?" Marianne Bertrand, an associate professor
at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and
Sendhil Mullainathan of Massachusetts Institute of Technology
use a field experiment to measure the extent of race-based job
discrimination in the current labor market.
From July 2001 to May 2002, Bertrand and Mullainathan sent
fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help-wanted ads listed
in the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune. They
used the callback rate for interviews to measure the success
of each resume. Approximately 5,000 resumes were sent for positions
in sales, administrative support, clerical services, and customer
service. Jobs ranged from a cashier at a store to the manager
of sales at a large firm.
The catch was that the authors manipulated the perception of
race via the name of each applicant, with comparable credentials
for each racial group. Each resume was randomly assigned either
a very white-sounding name (Emily Walsh, Brendan Baker) or a
very African-American-sounding name (Lakisha Washington, Jamal
The authors find that applicants with white-sounding names
are 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview
than applicants with African-American-sounding names. Applicants
with white names need to send about 10 resumes to get one callback,
whereas applicants with African-American names need to send
about 15 resumes to achieve the same result.
In addition, race greatly affects how much applicants benefit
from having more experience and credentials. White job applicants
with higher-quality resumes received 30 percent more callbacks
than whites with lower-quality resumes. Having a higher-quality
resume has a much smaller impact on African-American applicants,
who experienced only 9 percent more callbacks for the same improvement
in their credentials. This disparity suggests that in the current
state of the labor market, African-Americans may not have strong
individual incentives to build better resumes.
"For us, the most surprising and disheartening result
is seeing that applicants with African-American names were not
rewarded for having better resumes," says Bertrand.
Statistically, the authors found that discrimination levels
were consistent across all the occupations and industries covered
in the experiment. Even federal contractors (for whom affirmative
action is better enforced) and companies that explicitly state
that they are an "Equal Opportunity Employer" did
not discriminate less.
Creating the Job Applicants
In order to determine the effect of racially distinctive names
on callback potential, Bertrand and Mullainathan needed to generate
realistic and representative resumes that also would not thwart
actual job seekers. They began with resumes posted at least
six months beforehand on two major job search Web sites. For
the cities in the experiment, Boston and Chicago, the authors
used Boston resumes as templates for the Chicago resumes, replaced
the employer names and school names of one city with those of
the other, and purged the resumes of real names and contact
Within the four occupational categories (sales, administrative
support, clerical services, and customer services), the authors
classified each occupational category into two groups-high-quality
and low-quality-using criteria such as job experience, gaps
in employment history, and level of skill. For each high-quality
resume, the authors also added extra credentials such as summer
employment experience, volunteer experience, more computer skills,
certification for administrative positions, special honors,
or military experience. E-mail addresses were used almost exclusively
for the high-quality resumes. The high- and low-quality resumes
differed substantially in terms of skill but did not include
a large gap in education level, to avoid making applicants under-
or overqualified for a given position.
The result was a pool of distinct but realistic looking resumes,
similar in their education, experience, and personal profiles
to the potential population of job-seekers.
The choice of both first names and last names was crucial to
the experiment. To choose names that were distinctively white
or distinctively African-American, the authors referenced all
Massachusetts birth certificates from 1974 to 1979, and tabulated
the names that appeared relatively most frequently for each
racial group, male and female. Frequently used white-sounding
names in the study include Anne, Emily, and Allison for women,
and Neil, Todd, and Matthew for men. Frequently used African-American-sounding
names include Tamika, Latoya, and Latonya for women, and Tyrone,
Tremayne, and Rasheed for men.
Applicants in each race/sex/city/resume quality group were
assigned the same phone number so that the authors could track
employer callbacks in each group, even if they were not able
to match callbacks to specific resumes. The resulting bank of
names, phone numbers, addresses, and e-mail addresses were then
randomly assigned to the template resumes when responding to
For each ad, the authors used the bank of resumes to sample
four that fit the job description and requirements as closely
as possible: two resumes with white names and two with African-American
names, and one high-quality and one low-quality resume for each
group. They used the voicemail and e-mail messages sent by employers
to match the calls to specific resumes and ads.
The Callback Gap
By isolating elements of the resumes in this fashion, the authors
can attribute the 50 percent lower callback rate for African-American
applicants to name manipulation. While the cost of sending additional
resumes might not be large, this gap can be substantial in relation
to the rate of new job openings.
The results suggest a significant amount of discrimination
in this first stage of the job recruiting process. Furthermore,
the study measured how employers responded to improvements in
the African-American applicants' credentials.
The average resume lists eight years of experience. The addition
of e-mail addresses, honors, and special skills had a significant
effect on the likelihood of white applicants being called, but
a statistically insignificant effect for African-American applicants.
Employers simply seem to pay less attention or discount the
additional characteristics listed on the resumes with African-American
"The question may become, 'Do I really want to invest
the time to take an evening class to build my resume?'"
notes Bertrand. "The payback that an African-American applicant
gets from building these skills is much lower than the payback
a white applicant would get."
Bertrand cautions that employers may infer not just the race
of the applicant, but also social class, assuming that certain
African-American sounding names are associated with having more
underprivileged backgrounds. The results do not delve into the
larger issue of hiring rates or earnings gaps, or how African-American
applicants might fare using other channels for their job searches.
Though it has been suggested that choosing more race-neutral
names is the answer for African-Americans, Bertrand regards
such suggestions as ridiculous.
"Names are about identity," says Bertrand. "We
do not advocate changing names to fit the system, and that is
certainly not the point of our study."
Is Awareness Enough?
While the chances for getting the job can change dramatically
at the interview stage, the study shows that getting to that
stage requires overcoming significant hurdles for African-Americans.
The evidence suggests that discrimination is an important factor
in why African-Americans do poorly in the labor market as compared
to whites, and indicates one possible reason for the persistence
in racial inequality over time.
Though training alone may not be enough to alleviate the barriers
raised by discrimination, the study still may be useful for
training human resources managers on issues of diversity.
"We're not claiming that employers engage in discriminatory
behavior consciously, or that this is necessarily an issue of
racism," says Bertrand. "It is important to teach
people in charge of hiring about the subconscious biases they
may have, and figure out a way to change these patterns."
The nature of the problem also proves to be a dilemma beyond
any quick fix.
"I think most African-Americans already realize they need
to work much harder than whites to get a job," says Bertrand.
"They will have to send more resumes and fight to get that
first job interview."
Marianne Bertrand is associate professor of economics at
the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.