Discussion paper

DP18015 Subtle Discrimination

We propose a theory of subtle discrimination, defined as biased acts that cannot be objectively ascertained as discriminatory. We present a model in which candidates compete for a promotion. When choosing among equally qualified candidates, the principal subtly discriminates by breaking ties in favor of candidates from a particular group. Subtle discrimination matters because it affects decisions to invest in human capital. The model predicts that discriminated agents perform better in low-stakes careers while favored agents perform better in high-stakes careers. In equilibrium, firms are polarized: high-productivity firms strive to be “progressive” and have diverse top management teams, while low-productivity firms prefer to be “conservative” and have little diversity at the top.


Pikulina, E and D Ferreira (2023), ‘DP18015 Subtle Discrimination‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 18015. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp18015