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Is the sharing economy colour blind?

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Is the sharing economy colour blind?

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It’s probably hard to dispute that the world is, by and large, a fairer place than its ever been.  Discrimination, on whatever grounds, is now widely condemned.  Whilst racial discrimination is frowned upon however, there have been a number of studies suggesting that our behaviours aren’t always aligned with our beliefs (at least our public ones).

For instance, in a sporting context, fans (and indeed referees) were much more likely to regard a footballer to have committed a foul if that player was black.  Such unconscious discrimination has also been found in the professional world.  For instance, a famous study found that job applications with white sounding names attached to them were considerably more likely to result in a call back than those with black sounding names.

A Carnegie Mellon study took this a step further and explored whether the research employers do via social media, and the data they mine, is then used to discriminate.  Despite laws protecting people against religious discrimination, the research found clear evidence of it at play once employers had uncovered that aspect of an applicants background via social media.

It’s a rather bleak picture, and a study published recently suggests that it also extends into the sharing economy.  The study explored how the photos of property owners influenced both the rental prices and the success rate of profiles on AirBnB and found that black property owners charged approximately 12% less for their property than owners of similar properties from different ethnic backgrounds.

“Moreover, black hosts receive a larger price penalty for having a poor location score relative to nonblack hosts,” the researchers write in the paper. “These differences highlight the risk of discrimination in online marketplaces, suggesting an important unintended consequence of a seemingly routine mechanism for building trust.”

Now, suffice to say, this isn’t something that AirBnB condone, any more than the discriminatory behaviours outlined at the start of this post are condoned, either by our organizations or by society as a whole.  Nevertheless, it does appear that black owners are having a harder time finding travelers than their peers from other ethnic groups.

The researchers suggest that one way of overcoming this apparent disadvantage is to remove the need for a profile picture at all, or at least place them in a less prominent place than is currently the case.  To continue their theme however, the researchers plan to conduct similar studies into other areas of the sharing economy, with their next target the car sharing industry.

With the sharing economy looking likely to continue its meteoric rise, this kind of research will be invaluable in ensuring that the marketplaces are as meritocratic and fair as possible.

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