Workplace discrimination: Comparing American and European workplaces

What kinds of workplace discrimination do American workers face, and how does that compare with their counterparts in Europe?

Workplace discrimination: Comparing American and European workplaces

6 min read

More than 4 in 10 American workers report feeling discrimination in the workplace.

That figure comes from our own Talent Intelligence and Management Report. According to our data, 43 percent of American workers say they have faced discrimination at work.

Workplace discrimination is, unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence, but it might occur more often in the United States than it does in Europe. Across the European job markets we surveyed, fewer respondents reported that they had faced discrimination at work:

  • 36 percent in Germany
  • 34 percent in the United Kingdom
  • 32 percent in France

Workplace discrimination can take many forms. People can feel unjustly targeted because of their age, gender, race, parental status, marital status or disability.

Here, we look at how U.S. workers experience on-the-job discrimination, and how those experiences compare with those of European workers.

Racial discrimination in recruitment: A global comparison

In 2019, researchers Lincoln Quillian, Anthony Heath, Devah Pager, Arnfinn H. Midtbøen, Fenella Fleischmann and Ole Hexela published a comprehensive study into racial biases and hiring.

Their study looked at more than 200,000 job applications in nine countries across Europe and North America — Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United States. In crunching those numbers, the researchers found that white natives in each of those countries were more likely to secure interviews than non-white natives.

(Note: “Native” in this study means the applicant was born in the country in question.)

The gap was more pronounced in some countries than others. In the U.S. and Germany, for example, white applicants had a statistical advantage of about 20 to 40 percent. In France and Sweden, white applicants secured 65 to 100 percent more callbacks for interviews than non-white candidates.

This is all to say that racial discrimination happens everywhere. This helps explain why at least a third of workers in all countries in our study reported workplace discrimination.

But is there something unique in the American worker’s experience that accounts for those higher workplace-discrimination numbers?

portrait of elderly gentleman arms crossed, in pink shirt smiling; workplace discrimination concept

Race and work in the United States

In 2019, researchers Anthony P. Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, Artem Gulish, Martin Van Der Werf, and Kathryn Peltier Campbell published a study that shows just how much of an advantage white Americans have in attaining “good” jobs. (The study defines a good job as one that allows people to sustain a family. That works out to an annual salary of $35,000 for workers between 25 and 44 years old, and $45,000 for workers between 45 and 64 years old.)

According to the research, Americans of color have made significant gains in education, but white Americans have had such a headstart that it’s been easier for them to move into well-paid white-collar jobs that require at least a bachelor’s degree.

Even as Americans of color move into middle-skills jobs and jobs that require a degree, they have not closed the gap that exists between them and white Americans.

Commenting on the report, Quentin Fottrell at Marketwatch outlines what that gap means in practice: White Americans with the same level of education as their peers of color are disproportionately represented in good jobs, and they earn higher salaries.

Indeed, black American families could earn up to $1 million less over the course of a lifetime than white American families, Nick Noel, Duwain Pinder, Shelley Stewart III and Jason Wright at McKinsey explain.

For comparison: Race and work in the UK

White, U.K.-born workers have not inherited the same advantages as their counterparts in the U.S.

That’s not to say racial discrimination isn’t a problem in the U.K. A clear and measurable pay gap exists across racial lines there.

As Valentina Romei at The Financial Times reported in July 2019, U.K. workers “of black African, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi background[s]” earned less than their white peers. Workers of Indian and Chinese backgrounds earned more on average than their white counterparts.

Again, this isn’t a surprise. As noted above, workers in all countries experience racial discrimination. But the nature of that discrimination varies from country to country. That’s what makes it so hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison of workplace racism across national borders.

Age and work in the United States

Ageism also plays a big role in workplace discrimination in America.

Congress made it illegal to discriminate against workers because of their age more than a half century ago. Still, employers in the U.S. report that the law has not prevented them from being discriminated against. AARP says 72 percent of women and 57 percent of men between 45 and 74 years old have experienced age discrimination.

Further, Richard W. Johnson and Peter Gosselin, co-authors of a report from the Urban Institute and ProPublica, have found that 56 percent of older U.S. workers are pushed out of their jobs before they’ve planned to retire. Few of those workers are able to find work again, and they suffer financially because of it.

Some employers offer lucrative deals for employees to retire early. Others, however, use unethical or even illegal tactics instead, says Patrick Button, a professor at Tulane University and researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research Disability Research Center.

These dubious methods include job or task reassignment, negative performance reviews, or failing to adapt the job or workplace to the older person’s needs. These employers essentially apply pressure to force a “voluntary” departure, Button says.

Age, gender, and parenthood in America and Europe

Age discrimination impacts work on the other side of the Atlantic, as well.

As many as 44 percent of older workers in Europe and 64 percent in the UK are worried about age discrimination, says Allyson Zimmermann, executive director for EMEA at nonprofit organization Catalyst.

Older workers say they face biases such as being perceived as unable to perform their roles, being less able to innovate and less able to adapt.

Older women workers experience this more acutely than men, Zimmermann says. A similar dynamic is seen in the U.S. Between 2007 and 2013, the unemployment rate for women older than 65 jumped from 14 to 50 percent.

Younger women experience their own specific forms of discrimination, particularly working mothers. In Germany, for instance, the term rabenmutter (literally “raven mother”) is used to suggest working mothers abandon their children for the sake of their careers, says Jutta Allmendinger, Ph.D., president of the Berlin Social Science Research Center. That stigma still holds many German women back, and they feel forced to make an either/or decision between their careers and motherhood.

In the U.S., this stigma manifests in the fact that America is the only advanced industrial nation without any guaranteed paid maternity leave, former New York Times labor and workplace reporter Steven Greenhouse writes.

Then, there is the gender pay gap that underpins many of these points of intersection. In the United States, women tend to earn about 85 percent of what their male counterparts earn, according to Pew research. Across Eurozone countries, that gap fluctuates considerably, but Dr. Petra Foubert notes in a 2017 report for the European Commission that the average gender pay gap in Europe is about 16 percent, which roughly corresponds to Pew’s numbers for American workers.

Upset fatigued mature business woman taking off glasses; workplace discrimination concept

Cross-cultural tools for combating discrimination at work

Both American and European workplaces have their challenges to overcome. Workers on both sides of the Atlantic have to navigate prejudices related to their race, ethnicity, gender identity, parenthood, and age (to say nothing of sexuality, faith, and place of birth, which would add even further dimensions to this conversation).

The depth and number of points at which those prejudices intersect make it nearly impossible to understand why our data registered such a disparity in reported instances of workplace discrimination between American workers and European workers.

Perhaps this is one of those rare instances in which it’s simply easier to solve the problem than to try to diagnose it further.

Employers today have hiring tools that can help them eradicate biases during the recruitment and hiring processes. In the U.S., employers are certainly embracing these tools. Our data shows that American organizations are leading the adoption of bias-prevention hiring software, such as candidate-anonymizing tools.

Indeed, 79 percent of American CEOs and CHROs say their companies use candidate anonymity. Compare that to the UK, where that number stands 57 percent. French and German executives report even lower numbers.

It’s time for employers in all countries to mitigate the potential for workplace discrimination. That means securing the right tools to do so. A good next step, then, is to foster cultures in which all relevant candidates are able to secure work and all new hires are positioned to thrive in their roles.

Images by: fizkes/©, atic12/©, fizkes/©

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