Why Quantify Discrimination?

I was asked recently why it’s worth doing studies that prove discrimination is real. The people facing discrimination - the very people these studies are claiming to help - already know it exists. If you tell any woman you’ve done a study proving that some people talk over women, she’ll be like, yeah, no shit. If you tell a Black driver that some police discriminate during traffic stops, they’ll say the same.

After thinking about it for a few days, I decided there are three good reasons to do studies which prove and quantify discrimination. Here’s the first. I think we owe it to the victims of discrimination to precisely quantify its impacts. One reason statisticians spend so much time trying to pin down just how many people were killed by COVID or by genocide is that they feel it’s their duty to meticulously memorialize the victims. And I feel the same way about large-scale discrimination - the grim determination to lay out its exact cost in black and white.

Here’s the second reason. Often, it’s obvious there’s some discrimination, but it’s not clear exactly how big its effects are, and we care about that so we can make policy decisions. Sure, we all know people in the workplace sometimes talk over women. But how much does that actually affect women’s labor market outcomes, as an economist would say - or in plain English, their pay, their job satisfaction, whether they stick around? Should we put a lot of effort into keeping people from talking over women? Or do we care more about combatting sexual harassment, or improving paid leave, or providing more flexible work hours, or …? The answer to these questions isn’t obvious, and it’s profoundly important for keeping women in the workforce. For more on this specific example, take a look at Claudia Goldin’s decades of work.

And the third reason to try to prove and quantify discrimination is that we care about changing minds. Not the minds of the people affected by discrimination - they already know it exists - but the minds of everyone else. The people in the halls of power don’t tend to be the ones with first-hand knowledge of discrimination, but ending it requires educating them. When a young woman makes a public statement about her rape, and Joe Biden reads it and says that her words are “seared on his soul,” that’s a powerful man who is now on her side, a man who can rewrite the law.

It’s not just the people in the halls of power. It’s everyone else too - social change is contingent on changing their minds. It turns out changing minds is really hard, and you might ask how much an op-ed can do, or a scientific paper can do. Not much. Your proudest professional achievements barely make a ripple. You write a New York Times op-ed, millions of people read it, but they forget about it in a day; you write a paper that ricochets around the world, same thing. Don’t ever read the public comments on your writing if you want to have any illusion you’re changing most people’s minds. No one will remember any of our work a few decades after we’re dead.

But we’re part of a larger project - to bend the arc of the moral universe, one op-ed at a time, one p-value at a time, one open letter at a time. And sometimes the arc isn’t even that long. Even in the last few years we’ve seen such rapid social change. I’m a queer woman with friends who wouldn’t have dared to come out in their parents in high school. A decade later they did, because they knew their parents’ minds had changed. Support for gay marriage in the United States swung 30 points over that decade - Pew Research writes that it’s “among the largest changes in opinion on any policy issue over this time period”. Tens of millions of people have radically expanded their definition of who’s allowed to love.

Or take the shift in how we feel about sexual consent. I watched the movements against sexual violence explode on Twitter and recorded every tweet - I read hundreds, thousands of people’s stories, watched awareness grow, minds change. There, certainly, statistics played a major role. Google “one in four” and many of the top results are about the prevalence of sexual assault. I have to believe changing minds is possible, and the data backs this up.

Those are the reasons I try to quantify discrimination.

Written on October 5, 2021