Statistical Discrimination and Motherhood: Using Media to Teach Economics

Tod S. Porter, Youngstown State University
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


After lecturing on the concept of statistical discrimination, the instructor plays the story "Pennsylvania Moms Fight Hiring Bias" which was broadcast on the National Public Radio news program All Things Considered. In the story, a woman claims that employers were unwilling to hire her as a secretary because she had children. She said one potential employer stated that women with children took too much time off. According to the story, discrimination based on parental status is legal in 28 states.

After the story is played, students are asked whether this is an example of statistical discrimination. The issue of whether statistical discrimination should be allowed in some situations and what role the government should play in reducing statistical discrimination can also be discussed.

Learning Goals

The activity has the following goals:
  • Provide students with a better understanding of the concept of statistical discrimination
  • Give students practice in Hansen proficiency #5 (Applying existing economic knowledge)
  • Demonstrate the relevance of economic theory to a policy problem
  • Help to sustain student attentiveness by inserting the news story into a class presentation

Context for Use

This is an in-class activity designed for principles of microeconomics. It would be appropriate for use in any class size and any type of institution. The presentation of the news story should follow a description of statistical discrimination.

Description and Teaching Materials

To play the story for the class the instructor will need to have a classroom equipped with a computer with access to the internet. The sound system of the computer must be loud enough for all students in the class to hear the story.

After describing the concepts of statistical discrimination the instructor will direct his or her internet browser to the story "Pennsylvania Moms Fight Hiring Bias" on the National Public Radio web site. Playing the story will take approximately 4 minutes.

After listening to the story, students are asked to discuss the questions listed in the assessment section. If a more formal assessment is desired, students can be asked to hand in written answers. The discussion will take about 5 minutes.

Teaching Notes and Tips

A convenient way to store the url is to embed a link in a PowerPoint slide. The slide should also include the title and source of the story, the date it was broadcast, and the broadcaster's description of the story. It is also convenient to include the discussion questions on the following slide.

Check your browser to make sure that it will play the story prior to class. One occasional problem is that the browser will require that the multimedia player for the browser be updated prior to playing the story (this is more likely to happen if the multimedia player hasn't been used for a while, such as at the start of a semester). You don't want to waste class time on this, so make sure everything works before class starts.

Students should always have to answer questions after the news story is played (either informally in a class discussion or in some kind of written assignment) so there is an incentive to pay attention.

Initially it may feel awkward to play a news story because there isn't anything for you to do while the story is played. Find a corner of the classroom and relax; you don't always have to be the center of attention.


An informal assessment of the students' understanding can be achieved through a class discussion. Alternatively, students could be asked to write down answers to a set of questions either on their own or in groups. Questions that can be asked include:
  1. If a firm chooses not to hire women with children, is it a form of statistical discrimination?
  2. Do you think firms will have a more productive workforce if they tend to avoid hiring women who are mothers?
  3. Should firms have the option of choosing not to hire women with children?
  4. Should a firm have the option of choosing not to hire students from a high school with a poor reputation for academic performance? Does this differ from the case of not hiring women with children?
  5. Do you think there should be a government policy to discourage discrimination against women with children?

References and Resources

Media for Microeconomics is an annotated database of news stories that illustrate the concepts covered in principles of microeconomics. Users can search for stories by topic, length, and type of media (video and audio). Users can also recommend stories for inclusion in the database. The database can be accessed at Media for Microeconomics .