Information Format Influences Detection of Inequity*

Take a couple of minutes to examine Table 1 below and determine whether there is systematic salary inequity that favors one team or the other. Level refers to job, with higher numbers indicating the more advanced, demanding position. Years refers to years with Company Z.

Table 1.  Base information about levels, years, and salaries in Company Z

  Average Green Team managers Average White Team managers
Department Level Years Salary Level Years Salary
A 9 6 $41,000 12 10 $67,000
B 10 9 $49,000 12 13 $71,000
C 11 8 $52,000 13 17 $83,000
D 12 8 $56,000 13 16 $80,000
E 12 16 $68,000 14 19 $89,000
F 12 20 $74,000 8 5 $44,000
G 13 15 $70,000 9 8 $52,000
H 13 19 $76,000 11 5 $55,000
I 14 17 $78,000 12 7 $63,000
J 14 20 $81,000 12 14 $73,000

 

Your decision?

  • No visible inequity exists.
  • There is salary inequity favoring Green Team managers
  • There is salary inequity favoring White Team managers

 

Now examine Table 2 and determine whether there is systematic salary inequity that favors one team or the other.

Table 2.  Base information about levels, years, and salaries in Company Z

  Average Green Team managers Average White Team managers
Department Level Years Salary Level Years Salary
A 9 6 $41,000 8 5 $44,000
B 10 9 $49,000 9 8 $52,000
C 11 8 $52,000 11 5 $55,000
D 12 8 $56,000 12 7 $63,000
E 12 16 $68,000 12 14 $73,000
F 12 20 $74,000 12 10 $67,000
G 13 15 $70,000 12 13 $71,000
H 13 19 $76,000 13 17 $83,000
I 14 17 $78,000 13 16 $80,000
J 14 20 $81,000 14 19 $89,000

 

Your decision?

  • No visible inequity exists.
  • There is salary inequity favoring Green Team managers
  • There is salary inequity favoring White Team managers

If you are like most readers, it was much easier to spot inequity in Table 2, even though the information for both teams is identical in both tables!

Inequity is easy to spot in Table 2 because when we look across departments, 9 of 10 department pairings reveal that disadvantaged managers (Green Team) have higher qualifications, but lower salaries than advantaged managers (White Team).

When the same information is rearranged, however, inequity is harder to spot. Table 1 contains the same information as Table 2, except that the five bottom rows for advantaged managers are switched with the five top rows. In this case, relying on side-by-side comparison masks inequity. Both Table 1 and Table 2 show that Company Y pays less to Green Team managers who have the same qualifications as White Team managers.
If you remain skeptical, just compute the average Level, Years, and Salary columns for the two groups of managers.

The Research Basis

Crosby and colleagues, as well as other researchers, have shown in numerous studies over the years that people are less likely to detect discrimination when information is presented as individual cases (i.e., piecemeal form) or when group data are arranged in a way that masks the relation between qualifications and salary. When the individual cases are aggregated so that idiosyncratic differences in qualifications can be averaged or the relation between qualifications and salary are lined up, people readily identify inequities.

*Adapted from Rutte, C.G., Diekmann, K. A., Polzer, J. T., Crosby, F. J., & Messick, D. M. (1994). Organization of information and the detection of gender discrimination. Psychological Science, 5, 226-231 and Crosby, F., Clayton, S., Alksnis, O, and Hemker, K. (1986). Cognitive biases in the perception of discrimination: The importance of format. Sex Roles, 14, 637-646.