Social Discrimination

Discrimination is a complex social problem that affects individuals, groups, organizations, and society as a whole. Scholars describe discrimination as consisting of types (e.g., subtle or overt), occurring across levels (e.g., individual, institutional, cultural), and in relation to its targets (e.g., racial or ethnic, sexual, sexual orientation). The focus of study in many disciplines and a common element across definitions is that discrimination is an unfair action or behavior that results in negative outcomes for targeted social groups or their members.

Discrimination can be experienced as a major event or as a chronic condition, such as an ongoing barrier to resources. The cause of discrimination is the subject of much social science research and has been conceptualized in various ways, but is typically linked to prejudice and stereotyping, which are thought of as the attitudinal and cognitive components, respectively, that underlie discrimination. A widespread phenomenon, discrimination can be observed by asking individual targets for their perceptions of discriminatory experiences or through its impact on targeted groups. Proposed remedies for discrimination are numerous and may vary by target group.

Historical Perspective

The United States has a lengthy, discreditable history of legally sanctioned discrimination toward targeted social groups. A few examples are the forced relocation of Native American peoples, enslavement of African Americans, denial of voting and reproductive rights to women, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the criminalizing of same-sex sexual behavior. Although legal protections have been extended to some oppressed groups (e.g., Civil Rights Act of 1964, Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), discrimination is far from being eliminated as a social problem. Target groups continue to experience economic, political, and social disadvantages.

A few examples from the work world include significantly lower rates of pay for Hispanics, Native Americans, and African Americans compared to Whites; substantially higher rates of unemployment for people with disabling conditions compared to those without; more frequent and severe sexual harassment for women when compared to men; and the lack of legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation for lesbians and gay men (e.g., organizational policies and practices can explicitly deny employment on the basis of sexual orientation).

Levels and Types

Discrimination at a structural or institutional level, also called differential effect, appears to be neutral, but has the effect of disadvantaging target groups or advantaging majority groups. It can operate in social or organizational policies and practices that result in an adverse impact on target groups. Currently, legal protections in the workplace are provided on the basis of an employee’s race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, and disability status. However, prior to such protections, targeted groups (e.g., women, minorities, immigrants) could be hired, fired, and treated differently on the job on the basis of group characteristics such as sex, race, national origin, or religion. This history of legally sanctioned discrimination had the effect of segregating target groups into low-paying, low-prestige jobs with few opportunities for advancement. Although former practices such as advertising women’s and men’s jobs are legally prohibited, current practices such as word-of-mouth advertising can have the effect of getting the word out to those who are in one’s social category, thus excluding others.

Cultural discrimination also operates at the macro level and refers to privileging a particular social group’s cultural values. Examples can be seen in media representations that negatively skew a target group’s values and cultural expressions or that present culture only from a majority viewpoint.

At an individual level, discrimination is behavior that benefits a majority group or group member or disadvantages a target group or group member. Such behavior, also referred to as differential treatment, is often typed as overt or subtle. Overt discrimination is intentional and explicit and has become less acceptable today than it was prior to the passage of Civil Rights legislation. However, this old-fashioned type continues to exist and includes a range of behaviors such as denial of employment to a person with a disability, hostile verbal harassment directed to an ethnic minority person, or physically assaulting a gay man. Associated with beliefs in the superiority of one’s own social group, overt discrimination is behavior aimed at maintaining power over a social group or individual from a group that is regarded as inferior.

Subtle discrimination, the more common type, is covert and is often unintentional behavior that can operate at an unconscious level. An example is a male manager who regularly invites his male colleagues and subordinates to golf outings after work because he feels he has a lot in common with them, an activity that creates opportunities for the male subordinates, but not for the female, to engage in informal networking, thus gaining access to work and advancement information and to potential mentors.

There is a rich literature about the complex causes of discrimination. One commonly cited view suggests that discriminatory behavior stems from biased attitudes, judgments, and feelings about a social group or an individual based on group membership. Subtle forms are thought to take place when majority members hold prejudices or ambivalent feelings about a target group, perhaps unconsciously, but may view themselves as nonprejudiced. Overt expressions of discrimination are socially unacceptable and run counter to self-image, thus biases are expressed subtly (e.g., nonverbal behavior, endorsing beliefs that appear neutral but that disadvantage a target group).

Harassment in the workplace, a subtype of discrimination, includes behaviors that create a hostile, offensive, or intimidating work environment that unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance. Sexual harassment also includes behaviors that coerce sexual cooperation by threat of job detriment or promises of advancement. The antecedents of sexual harassment in the workplace that have received the most empirical support are an organizational climate that is tolerant of such behavior and a skewed gender context (i.e., gender of immediate supervisor, gender ratio of the workgroup, and gender typing of the occupation).

Targets, Extent, and Consequences

Discrimination is often described in terms of its target groups. Although all targeted groups experience discrimination, there is variability within groups in individual members’ perceptions of discrimination and the degree to which they experience harm. There are also between group differences that can affect how experiences of discrimination are conceptualized in each group. Groups differ in the degree to which they are visible to others. For example, sexual minorities and people with certain disabling conditions may not be identifiable unless they choose to disclose. Civil rights protections have been extended on the basis of some target characteristics (e.g., race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, and disability status) but not others (e.g., sexual orientation, stigmatizing conditions). Groups also have unique histories with discrimination (e.g., slavery, Holocaust) that can influence current experiences of personal or institutionalized discrimination. Historical experiences can also influence behavior or group identity over successive generations. Discrimination takes place within arenas or domains such as labor markets (e.g., job segregation, glass ceiling), education (e.g., graduation rates, placement in special education), housing and lending markets (e.g., access to home loans), criminal justice (e.g., arrest rates, sentencing, policing), and health care (e.g., access, quality). There are differences in how target groups fare with respect to access and function in each domain. The two groups most often studied are African Americans and women, and research about these two groups has influenced research on other groups. One consideration in the literature is whether there is a general model, applicable across groups, to explain discrimination and its resulting harm or whether the factors associated with discrimination are group specific.

It is difficult to determine the presence or extent of discrimination because it is typically observed indirectly, for example, through individual perceptions of discrimination or by an inferential process such as examining differential outcomes (e.g., lower rates of pay) for a target group. Estimates of perceived discrimination depend on the time frame (e.g., 12 months, lifetime), the questions that are asked (e.g., “Have you experienced sexual harassment?” vs. “Have you experienced unwanted sexual advances?”), and the context for the behaviors (e.g., work, housing, medical care). Lifetime prevalence estimates for African Americans that examine discrimination across contexts suggest that 98% have experienced discrimination. Research about work-related discrimination suggests 60% of African Americans experience work-related discrimination. Sexual harassment is estimated as affecting 50% of women employees. Between 25% and 66% of lesbian and gay male employees are thought to experience discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation in the workplace (e.g., derogatory jokes, termination of employment). Sometimes referring to it as double jeopardy, research finds that the frequency of discrimination is greater if an individual is a member of multiple target groups. For example, minority women are more likely to experience harassment in the workplace than are minority men, White men, or White women. Minority women, compared to White women and minority men, are segregated into lower-paying and lower-prestige jobs.

Field research has been useful in determining whether discrimination takes place in particular contexts, such as the housing market or in hiring. Administrative records can provide evidence of whether complaints of discrimination have been made in a particular setting. Social scientists use statistical analysis of nationally representative datasets or data from a particular organization to determine whether target groups are experiencing adverse impact (e.g., occupational segregation for Hispanic workers). Survey research is used to examine perceived experiences of discrimination. Each of these methods has made contributions to understanding various aspects of discrimination, but no one method provides a complete picture of the extent of discrimination. Ultimately, the best approach is one that uses multiple methods.


A large body of research links discrimination and harassment to decreased psychological and physical well-being and decrements in work-related attitudes for target groups. A number of theoretical models attempt to explain the factors associated with the harm process. A common element across various models is that discrimination acts like a stressor that, when appraised as exceeding the target’s ability to cope (stressful or threatening), leads to decreased well-being. Targets employ various coping responses (e.g., assertion, cognitive, or behavioral avoidance) in an attempt to manage the discrimination. Variations of this cognitive appraisal process have been incorporated into theoretical formulations describing how discrimination harms women, African Americans, Asian Americans, and sexual minorities.

Researchers have identified numerous other harm-enhancing or harm-buffering factors that relate to the target of the discrimination (e.g., hardiness; vulnerability; active and passive coping responses; attributions about the behavior, perpetrator, one’s self, and one’s social group; pride in and identification with one’s social group), the behavior itself (e.g., frequent and severe experiences, experiences across types or domains, perpetrator characteristics), or the context in which it takes place (e.g., how the organization or institution responds to the discriminatory behavior, the target, and the perpetrator). Despite the volume of research in this area, factors associated with discrimination have received differing degrees of empirical support and may be more or less relevant depending on the target group. Thus, it is challenging to point to one set of factors that work in the same manner across groups.

Racial and Ethnic Discrimination

Perceived racial discrimination in African Americans is associated with increased psychiatric symptoms and psychological distress, lower life satisfaction, negative health behaviors (e.g., cigarette smoking), and decreased physical health (e.g., hypertension). It also influences job-related outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities, such as decreasing satisfaction while on the job. Although the vast majority of studies on racial or ethnic discrimination have focused on African Americans, empirical research makes it obvious that Asian Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Arab Americans, and other racial and ethnic target groups experience discrimination and that it affects their psychological and physical health as well as their job attitudes. Additionally, discrimination has been linked to higher morbidity and mortality rates for African Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics compared to White Americans.

Sexual Discrimination

The majority of outcome research on gender-based discrimination has focused on the consequences of sexual harassment, a form of sexual discrimination. A large body of research links sexual harassment to negative and costly outcomes for both individuals and organizations. It is associated with psychological and health outcomes such as alcohol abuse, increased risk of eating disorders, health problems, distress, posttraumatic stress disorder, and symptoms of other mood and anxiety disorders. Job-related consequences, such as decreased job satisfaction and organizational commitment, increased job and work withdrawal, and job turnover, are also well documented. Although much of the research focuses on harmful consequences to targets, sexual harassment is also damaging to employers. Job turnover and the subsequent need to recruit, hire, and train new personnel are costly to organizations as are increased usage of health care and employee absences.

Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation

Disclosure of sexual identity is linked to workplace harassment and discrimination, with some scholars hypothesizing a direct link between disclosure and ensuing experiences of harassment and discrimination while others suggest that perceptions of discrimination drive whether one conceals or discloses. However, research is clear that the discrimination itself is associated with harm to physical and mental health, including increased alcohol and drug usage, psychological symptoms, distress, and perceptions of poor health. Likewise, hate crime victimization outside of the workplace is associated with decreased physical and psychological well-being.


Reducing discrimination is beneficial for target groups and organizations. It reduces costs attributable to discrimination, such as turnover, absenteeism, and legal costs associated with claims of discrimination. It also creates a more diverse workforce, a result that according to research has potential to benefit organizations. Research about harassment suggests that the attitudes and behaviors of organizational leaders and top management influence the degree to which harassment is tolerated in an organization. Unbiased attitudes of top management and organizational action in response to harassing behavior can reduce the overall amount of harassment in an organization. Factors thought to reduce harassment and discrimination include bringing target group members to numerical parity with majority group members within work groups, rewarding intergroup cooperation, and creating an organizational climate that supports diversity and does not allow for discrimination. Organizations can also review and eliminate policies and procedures that lead to having an adverse impact on target groups and can institute strong policy statements prohibiting discrimination. They can also provide diversity training and resources for targets of discrimination.


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