The crisis abets gender and age discriminations at work

Do Diversity programmes survive economic downturn? This is one interesting question that also leads to the question what happens to diversity target groups when times get tough? Current analysis show that economic crisis have a significant, negative impact on discrimination in the workplace ‘due to performance effects’. According to reports in the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ this hits women and older employees the most.

The sociologist, Jean-Francois Amadieu, university professor at Sorbonne in Paris and director of the Anti-Discrimination Office, hast just released his book ‘DRH: le livre noir’ in which he portrays the practices of Human Resource Managers in France without compromise. His findings show that being older or having a disadvantageous appearance or even being involved in the union movement can slow or block you from getting hired, or from getting a raise or developing your career. Despite the legal restrictions and the introduction of the HALDE (Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité), high commission for the fight against discrimination and for equality, corporations use sneaky techniques to avoid legal obligations. The book mentions the exclusion of social background as an example, which appears to be quite a stretched evaluation.

According to Prof. Amadieu the crisis fuels discrimination at the workplace. Between 2005 and 2008 the number of complaints had raised significantly which led to a high visibility of the HALDE – and to employers becoming afraid of this institution. Today they feel less at risk, since complaints have become less frequent and the HALDE was replaced by a defender of rights that rather analyses surveys and screens unemployment data for inequalities. Those, however, clearly show an increase of discrimination and a specific disadvantage for older employees. For this group, the effect of the crisis is evident: Prof. Amadieu describes an obsession with youth of society in general and argues that this leads to an increase in age discrimination and based on physical appearance. This happens despite the introduction of anonymous application processes in 2006, which are only rarely used. Although recent surveys reveal that only 18% of organisations consider a photo on a CV important. Nevertheless, employers often check candidates on social networks and the use of application videos introduces a whole set of new biases reinforcing discrimination based on physical appearance, including but not limited to skin colour and body size.

But besides this, in those cases where the tension on the labour market leads to a higher competition between candidates, the first factor of discrimination is the recruitment via existing networks. This reinforces discrimination based on social background as networks, co-optation and nepotism correlates with social status. Nevertheless, this type of discrimination has not been given strong attention. In six surveys by the Defender of Rights the question of family sponsorship to find an employment or internship has never been asked while it is known to have a massive effect on wages and even career development – completely beyond the principle of meritocracy.Professor Amadieu does not want Diversity to be discussed against the backdrop of performance and a business case. According to him, there are social issues that need to be resolved and implementation should happen through legislation. He argues that despite the positive impact that a diverse workforce can have on business performance, for some organizations it is still more profitable to discriminate. For him, Diversity appears to have the drawback of not eliminating discrimination. “This is an opinion that we are hearing at conferences, at times,” Diversity expert Michael Stuber comments, “but we should remind ourselves that D&I is designed to be a business concept which certainly has some positive effect on reducing discrimination”. He strongly concludes that no one should impose a miracle agenda onto Diversity.

Another survey released by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) on behalf of the Defender of Rights in January 2013 indicates that your age or being a woman are the main grounds of discrimination at the workplace. The number of cases has raised since 2011 and almost equal numbers were reported from private (30% of perceived discriminations) and public (29% of perceived discriminations) employers. This means a significant increase in the public sector over the past four years (up from 22% in 2009). The survey covered 500 employees of the private sector and 500 civil servants were interviewed. Participants indicated to having been discriminated based on their gender (22% in private sector and 26% in public sector), maternity (21% in private 24% in public sector), based on their age (32% in private and 20% in public sector), due to ethnic background (17% in private and 14% in public sector), due to their involvement in a union (11% of private and public sector) and due to a disability (5% in private 3% in public sector).

81% of all participants consider the crisis and the deterioration on the labour market as factors leading to the increase of discrimination. Due to decreasing profits, the pressure and stress for managers has increased and led to inappropriate measures. According to the director of the French Institution of Public Opinion, the effects of the crisis explain why gender and age are the main reasons for discrimination: In order to increase productivity and cut costs, organizations seem to prefer men and younger employees… Let’s hope this interpretation does not reflect reality all too closely.