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date: 25 July 2021



  • Kendra DeLoach McCutcheonKendra DeLoach McCutcheonSchool of Social Work, Syracuse University


Social workers have a responsibility to challenge discrimination and promote social and economic justice. To fulfill this responsibility, it must be understood how discrimination exists and the detrimental affect it has on the relationship between individuals who are disenfranchised (targeted groups) and individuals who have privilege, resources, and power (advantaged groups) (Hardiman & Jackson, 2007). This entry will present an overview of discrimination, define the various forms of discrimination, present public policy and legislation regarding discrimination, and discuss implications for social workers and the profession.


  • Criminal Justice
  • Disabilities
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
  • Social Justice and Human Rights


According to the Social Work Code of Ethics (Workers, 2008), social workers should act to eliminate and prevent discrimination of individuals, groups, and/or communities based on “race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical disability” (Code sections 4.02 & 6.04). Historically, the social work profession has opposed discrimination and required its membership to challenge it as presented in the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics (Workers, 2008), the International Declaration of Ethical Principles of Social Work of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW, 2004), and the Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education (Council on Social Work Education, 2008). As a profession and a discipline, social work has accepted the charge of addressing and eliminating discrimination in the lives of the people it serves through direct and indirect approaches (e.g., practice, policy, research, and education).

Definition of Discrimination

Discrimination is defined as the outward behavioral response by an advantaged group, a group who receives advantages and is dominant and powerful, that is unfavorable or negative toward a targeted group, a group who lacks power and privilege (Lum, 2004). The predecessor of discrimination is prejudice; the act of thinking that one group is better than, or holds a greater value than, another group is the predecessor of discrimination (Palmer, 1993). Discrimination is an act or series of actions taken against a targeted group with the intention of preventing, devaluing, negating, or humiliating them. When discrimination is enacted, an advantaged group receives opportunities at the expense of a targeted group. When discrimination functions, an advantaged group creates opportunities to advance their members while withholding information, resources, access, and support from targeted groups. Thus, the byproduct of discrimination is twofold in that: (a) advantaged group members may receive opportunities undeservedly and (b) targeted group members who are qualified may be overlooked, passed over, or denied opportunities. Through discriminatory acts, advantaged group members unjustifiably receive preferential treatment, additional assistance and/or information, or they are treated less punitively than targeted group members.

Overview of Discrimination

Discrimination affects groups of people differently depending upon which to group an individual belongs. A targeted group or targeted group member(s) receive the brunt of discrimination and they represent people who experience marginalization or disenfranchisement at a higher rate (Hardiman & Jackson, 2007). For example, targeted groups may refer to people of color; women with children; people with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersexed, curious, two-spirited (LGBTQQIC2) people; poor people; and immigrants. Advantaged group or advantaged group members represent people who hold positions of power, who belong to a dominant group, and/or who receive advantages because of their membership (Hardiman & Jackson, 2007). These terms best capture the bio, psycho, socio, historical, cultural, economic, environmental, spiritual, and social location of people’s identities. Social location is fluid; hence, people may hold multiple identities and any of those identities, given the context of the situation, event, or behavior, may place them in an advantaged or targeted group (Chavis & Hill, 2009). For example, an Asian American transgendered male in a relationship with a woman assumes multiple identities—Asian descent, American nationality, transgendered, gay, female transitioned to male. His male identity and nationality in certain contexts may advantage him, juxtaposed to his racial identity, sexual transitioning, and sexual identity may disadvantage him.

Different presentations of discrimination may exist, overt, that is, explicit and exposed, or covert, that is, implicit and concealed. Discrimination has been mainly challenged legally regarding employment and violence, leading to legislation being enacted to guard against overt forms of discrimination. Consequently, legislation is much more difficult to guard against covert forms of discrimination because of the complexity and clandestine nature of it (Beratan, 2006). Overt forms of discrimination are easier to question by law given the presence of a visual artifact or oral declaration of someone being denied access, resources, services, or activities (Beratan, 2006). Examples of overt forms of discrimination are schools that fail to mainstream students who have disabilities; signs stating “Whites Only”; refusal to serve a Muslim woman wearing a hijab; denying a promotion to an employee wearing braids, twists, or hair locks (Beratan, 2006). When discrimination is overt it is easier to identify the act as discriminatory (Major, Quinton, & Schmader, 2003). However, when discrimination is covert, the clandestine nature of it triggers feelings of being discriminated against, but the lack of explicit and tangential proof prompts self-doubt and uncertainty about accurately assessing and identifying it as such. More often, this phenomenon happens when an individual experiences covert discrimination (Major, Quinton, & Schmader, 2003). For example, if a qualified woman was passed over for a job promotion, she would be uncertain if her loss of the promotion was an act of gender discrimination. However, if it were discovered that administrators consistently passed over qualified women for promotion, then gender discrimination would accurately describe why she was passed over (Fisher, Johnson, & Sipe, 2009).

Conceptualization of the Forms of Discrimination

As indicated earlier, discrimination is “any behavior which denies individuals or groups of people equality of treatment which they may wish” (Stroebe & Insko, 1989, p. 10). The denial of equal treatment based on difference may manifest in a variety of ways. They may include age discrimination, disability discrimination, employment discrimination, gender discrimination, housing discrimination, national origin discrimination, racial and color discrimination, religious discrimination, and sexual identity discrimination (Lum, 2004; Palmer, 1993; Quiros & Dawson, 2013). This list, although inclusive, is not exhaustive. When one person or group of people exerts power and control over deciding who accesses and obtains resources, services, and opportunities, they have practiced discrimination. Consciously or unconsciously, everyone has exhibited a prejudicial moment that influenced decision making, which led to discrimination (Dovidio & Fiske, 2012). Discrimination is an old concept and its legacy persists today, making it inescapable for even the most conscientious and just individuals.

Legacy of Discrimination

The legacy of discrimination is longstanding in the lives of both advantaged and targeted groups. Discrimination deters targeted groups from accessing and obtaining resources, services, and opportunities, which deters society from functioning optimally. On the surface, it may be challenging to identify the harmful effects of discrimination on society. However, on a deeper level, examining the long-term effects of discrimination exposes the devastation it has on both individuals and groups, which make up society. For example, since the 1980s the U.S. government has waged a War on Drugs, allocating federal dollars ending this war. Much of the money has been spent increasing community policing, increasing police technology and training, and increasing the number of correctional facilities (Tonry, 2010). Arrest rates for low-level drug dealers and drug users have increased, especially for users of crack-cocaine and marijuana—the drug of choice for people of color, African Americans, and Spanish-speaking Americans. Sentencing of users and dealers of these drugs is disproportionately higher and more punitive than for users and dealers of more expensive drugs—powder cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines—the drug of choice for white Americans (Tonry, 2010). White Americans, considered an advantaged group compared to their racial/ethnic counterparts, are less likely to be arrested, more likely to serve less prison time when arrested, and more likely to receive opportunities to obtain drug rehabilitation in exchange for serving prison time than black Americans or Spanish-speaking Americans (Harris, Steffensmeier, Ulmer, & Painter-Davis, 2009; Tonry & Melewski, 2008; Tonry, 2010). The disproportionality of treatment in the judicial system for white Americans versus people of color reinforces stigma on people of color, contributing to racialized schemas forming in the American psyche regarding people of color and drug use (Tonry, 2010). This schema becomes inculcated into the collective conscious of white Americans and people of color, supporting the judicial system’s harsh drug and crime control policies and practices against people of color, specifically black and brown people. Given the legacy of racism and racial discrimination, “colorism,” implicit and explicit bias toward African features, cause black offenders to be treated especially severely (Tonry). White Americans in advantaged groups may avoid engaging people of color on a personal or professional level, further disadvantaging both groups from opportunities to engage in obtaining and exchanging pertinent information.

Discrimination has negative affects not only on targeted groups, but also on advantaged groups. When candidates of color, women, people with disabilities, and LGBTQQIC2 get passed over for jobs, promotions, or leadership opportunities because of discriminatory thoughts and actions, advantaged groups do not receive the knowledge and experiences stemming from these groups. Discrimination prevents targeted groups from serving in decision-making roles or participating in discussions where their thoughts and leadership skills are considered and acted upon (Mueller, Dunleavy, & Buonasera, 2008). The diverse experiences from both advantaged and targeted group members shape, promote, and enrich business strategies, projects, events, and other work-related tasks in a positive and different way.

Biopsychosocial effects of discrimination.

The long-term effects of experiencing discrimination damage the biopsychosocial functioning of individuals, groups, and society. Discrimination has been found to be a significant stressor associated with physical and psychological distress (King, 2005). As an environmental stressor, discrimination has been found to increase negative arousal, spilling over and manifesting increased conflict in individual’s interpersonal relationships (Riina & McHale, 2012). Racial discrimination in the lives of adolescents places them at risk of psychological distress, externalizing behavioral problems, and poor academic outcomes (Riina & McHale).

Rosenberg, Desai, and Kan (2002) explored infant mortality rates of infants in the United States born of non-native black mothers compared to native-born black mothers. After exploring maternal nutrition and stress of non-Hispanic black mothers living in New York City (1988–1992), it was found that infant mortality for infants of native-born women had a higher rate of infant mortality than infants of non-native born women. These researchers identified stress related to racism, a discriminatory act based on race, and maternal nutrition as contributing causes. Consequently, the compounding effects of racial discrimination coupled with challenges in the environment adversely affect human biology and development, proximally damaging infant births and distally damaging future family formation.

Benjamins (2013) attempted to assess the detrimental effects of discrimination on mental and physical health behaviors and outcomes. Five measures of race/ethnic discrimination and emotional and behavioral coping responses among African Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and white Americans (N=1,699) were used to assess race/ethnic differences. Eighty-six percent of this sample reported experiencing discrimination, most likely reported by blacks and then by Puerto Ricans. Using stratified adjusted logistic regression models, discrimination was most strongly related to depression; however, it was not associated with physical health and health behaviors. Coping responses were not supported in mediating the association between discrimination and health.

Noh, Kaspar, and Wickrama (2007) studied Canadian immigrant Korean families (N=807) and found that experiencing overt forms of discrimination had a deleterious effect on their positive affect, regardless of cognitive or emotional mediators. Nevertheless, covert discrimination increased feelings of distress because of the complexity of cognitively and emotionally appraising the experiences (p. 1272). Cognitive appraisal completely mediated depressive symptoms and covert discrimination. Feelings of powerlessness, hopeless, frustration, and intimidation contribute to attributional ambiguity. Attributional ambiguity in the cognitive appraisal process occurs when uncertainty of appraising the mistreatment accurately exists. Noh, Kaspar, and Wickrama found that these families were uncertain if the mistreatment was an attack of their personal characteristics or personal identity (i.e., prejudice) or an attack of their ethnic group membership (i.e., discrimination).

Rostosky, Riggle, Horne, Nicholas Denton, and Huellemeier (2010) explored the psychological reactions of lesbian, gay, bisexual individuals (N=300) to marriage amendment campaigns. Among this group, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals have experienced increases in psychological distress and stress from campaigns promoting the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples. These individuals report a variety of indignations regarding discrimination, negative rhetoric surrounding the campaign, apprehension over protecting their families, and fault with institutionalized religion, ignorance, and conservative politicians, poor political maneuvering by LBGT organizers, hopelessness, dejection, optimism, and determination to fight for enfranchisement. The act of feeling discriminated against incites a variety of biopsychosocial experiences that, over time, can be detrimental to mental and physical health and well-being.

Common Forms of Discrimination

Common forms of discrimination that exist include age discrimination, disability discrimination, employment discrimination, gender discrimination, housing discrimination, national origin discrimination, racial and color discrimination, religious discrimination, and sexual identity discrimination. Age discrimination: age discrimination is the unfair treatment of individuals based on their age (Butler, 1969). Age discrimination is a common practice within the workplace (Dennis & Thomas, 2007). Age discrimination occurs when animus from an employer toward an employee is based on characteristics related to age and not anything else. Age discrimination may be demonstrated when an employer uses stereotypes and prejudices to differentially treat older adults (2007). Employers may refuse to hire older workers; lay-off older workers first; fire older workers to reduce the overhead cost of salaries, fringe benefits, and health insurance; and offer them early retirement. Since the 1960s in the United States, legislation has prohibited age discrimination through such acts as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) (1967) (Nuemark, 2003). Congress passed other acts, including the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination against women and people of color (see [;]), which have received more attention than age discrimination. Nevertheless, with the rise of the aging population, longer life expectancies, and financial demands, older workers may need to remain in the workforce longer; thus, the costs and effects of aging discrimination may become a more salient issue than in earlier years.

Disability discrimination.

Disability discrimination as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is an individual who has an mental or physical impairment that limits his activities of daily living, has a record of such impairments, and is regarded as having impairments even in the absence of an actual disability. Resulting from an individual’s disability, assistance and accommodations may be warranted and, under the ADA, guaranteed within reason. Reasonable accommodations constitute physical changes to the environment, aid to the person with the disability, restructuring activities, providing qualified interpreters or readers to the individual, permitting more time for the completion of tasks or assignments, or purchasing/installing equipment that would help with performance. The intent of offering the reasonable accommodation is to create an environment in which the individual with the disability can perform to a similar, if not same, level of performance as a person without a disability.

Employment discrimination.

Within the subtext of employment discrimination, wage discrimination is a type of discrimination that can be defined as pay arbitrarily assigned to an employee unrelated to work performance or merit (Coleman, 2003). Two acts barring wage discrimination have been enacted, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Pay Act outlawed the use of gender as the basis for discriminating in the wages of employees. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was more comprehensive in outlawing the use of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin in wage discrimination (Kennedy, Nagata, Mushenski, and Johnson, 2008). Regarding the act, it prohibits retaliation against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on gender, race, national origin, and religion or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under Title VII.

Gender discrimination.

This form of discrimination occurs in many contexts of women’s lives, such as family, work, religious institutions, and educational institutions. In Canada and the United States, women report feeling discriminated against by trusted ones (e.g., intimate partners, family members, and people in their social network) because of their gender (Foster, 2009). The effects of gender discrimination are longstanding and can become instilled unconsciously into the collective global consciousness through traditional gender roles of women and men, mainly relegating women to a substandard or lesser status. Understanding the effects of gender and how discrimination may contribute to poor career outcomes for women is a critical step to improving conditions for them. For example, in a Nigerian study focused on identifying the causes of gender inequality in academia and the implications on academic development of females in the university system, Ogbogu (2011) found that recruitment strategies into academia were not biased toward men and that merit motivated acceptance into the academic profession for men and women. However, traditional gender roles promoted within society supported low career aspirations in women, deterring them from thinking about ways of working toward greater gains and higher positions in academia. Women had to contend with nuclear and extended family responsibilities in addition to work responsibilities, which would have exacerbated their stress if they took on higher academic positions.

Housing discrimination.

Housing discrimination is when targeted groups are denied from purchasing, renting, or remaining in a dwelling by a landlord through restrictions; outright refusals; denial of availability of the dwelling, different terms or standards, unwarranted termination based on discriminatory reasons; lack of repairs to certain tenants based on discriminatory reasons; creation of a sexually hostile environment; lack of reasonable accommodations for disabled persons; and failure to stop another tenant from making harassing, threatening, or discriminatory comments to a person in a protected category. This form of discrimination is illegal and prohibited by the federal Fair Housing Act. The act applies to anyone who deals with tenants and prospective tenants, including landlords, property managers, property owners, and real estate agents. Persons who deal with tenants and prospective tenants may be liable for the civil rights violations of employees regardless if they were not the ones who willfully discriminated against the tenants or prospective tenants.

As espoused by Mendenhall (2010) “during various periods of history and under different stages of capitalism, the U.S. government, business organizations, the residential finance industry, neighborhood organizations, and individuals have engaged in covert and overt practices to actively create racially segregated, inferior, and higher-cost housing” (p. 20). Housing discrimination is created through structural practices that involve a barrage of complex factors operating on both racial and class lines. The quality of resources received for obtaining housing often varies based on many demographical descriptors, including race, gender, income, credit, and knowledge. For instance, various forces can threaten the ability of African Americans to obtain a dwelling in the housing market, particularly those with low incomes, lack of housing consumer knowledge, and low credit scores. Furthermore, discriminatory practices through political and structural forces, such as red lining, municipal ordinances, private deed restrictions, racial violence, and the most recent subprime crisis have made obtaining housing unattainable for many families of color, generally, and for African Americans, specifically (Mendenhall, 2010).

Because of current waves of immigration, European countries, such as the cities of Spain, have reported a growing trend of housing discrimination. Consequently, the legal system has paid attention to the growing waves of immigration and has analyzed various types of housing discrimination and has identified legal protections against it afforded under European, Spanish and Catalan law. In 2007, the Catalan Right to Housing Act constituted the premier, most comprehensive European law against housing discrimination. The act includes provisions defining direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and positive legal action (Ponce, 2010). This European law could serve as a model for the American legal system, setting an example for other forms of anti-discrimination legislation and policies.

National origin discrimination.

National origin discrimination is the exclusion, lack of opportunity, or denial of services, resources, goods, or access based on the national origin, ancestry, linguistic characteristics related to a specific ethnic group or accent, and culture of an individual. As defined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination on the basis of national origin in employment is illegal. Employers with fifteen or more employees pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act are prohibited from practicing this type of discrimination. The EEOC enforces this federal prohibition and ensures that an individual married to an individual from a certain birthplace outside of the United States or associated with persons of a different national group cannot be discriminated against.

Racial discrimination.

This form of discrimination is an outward behavioral response that is negative toward a racial out-group based on ethnic and phenotypic features of its members (Lum, 2004). Racial discrimination is prevalent in the way the media covers the news, which often attributes crime to people of color. Historically, stereotypic expression has contributed to racial discrimination across the globe as demonstrated by apartheid, civil unrest, genocide, revolutions, and wars in Africa, Europe, Australia, Asia, and in Central, North, and South America. When resources become scarce and people begin to compete for them, certain individuals begin using skin color as a method for distinguishing the worthy from the unworthy. An illustration of racial discrimination is best evidenced through the media.

Although in the United States most violent crime is committed by white Americans, Spanish-speaking Americans, and black Americans, when individuals of Asian descent commit crimes, their racial/ethnic identity is overemphasized in the reporting (Chuang, 2012). In 2007, news media coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings overemphasized twenty-three-year-old Seung-Hui Cho’s foreign ethnic identity despite his green card status giving him permanent residency in the United States and his having lived in the United States since he was eight years old (Song, 2008). In 2009, newspaper coverage of forty-one-year-old Jiverly Wong, who committed a mass shooting at an immigrant services center in Binghamton, NewYork, overemphasized his birthplace and ethnic identity despite being a naturalized U.S. citizen since 1995 and living in the United States for more than twenty years (Chuang, 2012). Although both Cho and Wong had lived in the United States for more than fifteen and twenty-one years, respectively, newspaper coverage failed to view them as Asian Americans and, in Wong’s case, as a legal American. Instead, newspaper coverage conflated Cho and Wong’s ethnicity with foreignness, associating the violent acts with race and foreign characteristics. In so doing, the burden of the crime is shifted to people of color and targeted groups, reinforcing stereotypes of people of color as being violent (p. 256). This form of discrimination in the media serves to maintain a social and symbolic order whereby racialized narratives about foreign identity are reinforced. Wong’s frustration in achieving the American Dream was attributed to his poor proficiency in English, bouts of unemployment, and divorce. Despite positive stereotypes of individuals of Asian descent that appear occasionally in the United States, overemphasizing foreign ethnic identity demonstrates covert forms of discrimination.

Color discrimination.

Despite the negative effects of colorism on non-white communities, it is an understudied phenomenon (Landor et al., 2013; Monroe, 2013). Globally, the rate of consumption of skin lighteners has steadily increased for both men and women (Sherestha, 2013), suggesting a preference for light skin over brown or dark skin for non-white people (Chaipraditkul, 2013; Crenshaw, 1993). Within the subtext of racial discrimination another type of discrimination exists that is based on color, which is referred to as colorism or color discrimination. Colorism is the act of denying fair treatment to people based on the phenotype, color, complexion, pigmentation, skin shade, or tone (Quiros & Dawson, 2013). Race and color are not synonymous; however, race and color overlap. Color discrimination may occur among people belonging to the same race (intraracial discrimination) or ethnicity or occur between people belonging to different racial or ethnic groups (interracial discrimination) (Marira & Mitra, 2013). An example of intraracial discrimination is an Asian manager chiding an Asian employee’s work performance based on the latter’s darker skin tone. This form of discrimination is rooted in unfair treatment of an individual based on the lightness, darkness, or other color trait differences. Globally, color discrimination may differ based on social cultural contexts of the chosen region. In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act mandates that colorism be eliminated; however, the commission’s standards deem that the plaintiff must bear the burden of proof through the use of direct or circumstantial evidence to prove a claim of color discrimination. Obtaining evidence and proof that discrimination has occurred based on color differences or preferences is difficult and oftentimes these types of claims are unsubstantiated.

Religious discrimination.

Religious discrimination is unfair treatment of an individual based on her or his religious beliefs or involvement or affiliation with an individual who is associated with a particular religion or associated with a religious organization or group (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Members belonging to marginalized religious groups are excluded from partaking fully in activities or in the opportunities afforded to members of mainstream religious groups (Adams, 2007). Because religion crosses other dimensions, such as age, race, gender, ability, and sexual identity, it is hard to disentangle it from other social identities that may be affected by discrimination. For example, an Iranian American woman who is Muslim shares several social identities that may be affected by discrimination based on her nation of origin identity, gender identity, and Muslim identity. If she encountered covert discrimination because of her religion, it would be difficult to separate it from her other social identities. An integrative approach to understanding how all of her social identities could be targeted for discrimination may assist in understanding the complexity of discrimination and the justification used to discriminate.

Sexual identity discrimination.

This form of discrimination is based on the lack of advantage and privilege afforded to individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, questioning, intersexed, curious, and two-spirit (LGBTQQIC2) (Griffin, D’Errico, Harro, & Schiff, 2007). Members belonging to the aforementioned groups are prejudged based on their expressions of gender nonconforming and non-heteronormative identities. For example, male figure skaters, gymnasts, and dancers may be identified by derogatory names because of their diverging expression of masculinity from a heteronormative aesthetic, despite the level of fitness, body strength, skills, training, and competitiveness required by their sport (Gregory, 2011). To date, discriminating against LGBTQQIC2 members is still widely accepted, as evidenced by the juxtaposition between policies that purport intolerance of discrimination based on sexual identity and enforcement of those policies when they have been violated. According to Gregory, when discrimination against LGBTQQIC2 individuals occurs in businesses, most employees (a) engage in using derogatory language against this group, (b) support the use of derogatory language against this group, (c) remain silent, thereby surreptitiously conveying acceptance of the use of derogatory language against this group, or (d) if opposed to the use of derogatory language against this group, fail to take corrective action.

Public Policy and Legislation

Age discrimination.

Since the 1960s in the United States legislation has prohibited age discrimination through such acts as the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (Nuemark, 2003). Although much attention has been spent debating other acts, including the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act that prohibit discrimination against women and people of color, age discrimination is beginning to receive more attention given the rise in the aging population.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau “middle series” projections, by 2030 the US population aged 65 and older will increase from 13 percent to 20 percent ( The rising growth in the aging population in the United States will increase the social costs of any aging discrimination legislation on older adult workers or highlight any cost caused by age discrimination legislation.

In the United Kingdom by 2020, the aging population of individuals fifty and over will increase from 31.2 percent to 38 percent (Taylor & Walker, 1997). Declining fertility and mortality rates help explain the population growth of this age cohort. Since the 1950s the number of older workers has steadily declined in the U.K. labor market. Additionally, the United Kingdom has seen an exodus of older adults from the labor market because of declining industries that are closing, employers choosing to lay off older workers over their younger counterparts, and employers negotiating and offering early retirement packages to older workers who are close to their retirement age (Taylor and Walker). Historically, UK policy has been aimed at removing older workers from the labor market, as demonstrated by the introduction of the Job Release Scheme in 1977. This legislation provided incentives to employers who retired older workers and replaced them with unemployed younger workers (Walker, 1985).

The UK government has focused on youth unemployment, prompting the introduction of the Job Release Scheme in 1977. This program aimed to alleviate unemployment of younger workers, and from 1981 to 1988 it provided financial support to unemployed men between sixty and sixty-four years of age who withdrew from the unemployment register (Walker and Taylor, 1993). Through the abolition of the earning rule in 1989, the U.K. government attempted to eliminate prior discriminatory policy that penalized older workers who worked past the state pension age. In 1993, the main government training program for long-term unemployed individuals, Training for Work (TfM), increased the age limit for access to the program from fofty-nine years to sixty-three years. Despite the increase in the age limit, the priority in administering the program is towards individuals within the eighteen to twenty-four age range. Additionally, training providers may not receive bonuses for enrolling older workers as they would for other disadvantaged groups. Moreover, according to the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act of 1978, older workers who reach the “normal” age of retirement receive no legal protection if they are unfairly dismissed from work (Industrial Relations Services, 1993).

Unlike the United Kingdom, the US Congress passed a series of legislation banning age discrimination in the workplace. In 1967, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibited age discrimination and protected individuals aged forty to sixty-five years old ( In 1975, the Age Discrimination Act prohibited age discrimination in all programs or activities that received federal assistance, including state or local government receiving federal funds. In 1978, the ADEA amendments extended the protective age range from forty to seventy years of age, by default raising the mandatory retirement age to seventy. In 1986, another ADEA amendment removed upper-age limitations, banning mandatory retirement with limited exclusions. In 1990, the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act regulated financial inducements to retirees (Nuemark, 2003). These acts protect older workers from differential treatment based on age by employers who express prejudices and stereotypes about aging that are unrelated to work productivity or costs.

Disability discrimination.

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 ensures that government and private sectors provide a coordinated effort that people with disabilities may fully participate in society by providing them with reasonable accommodations (Rothstein, 2000). The act is divided into three titles: Title I prohibits employment discrimination of people with disabilities related to job application procedures, hire, advancement, dismissal, employee compensation, job training, and other job-related conditions (42 U.S.C. §§ 12111–12117, 1994); Title II prohibits discrimination of people with disabilities from being excluded from, or denied benefits of, services, programs, or activities of a public entity (42 U.S.C. §§ 12131–12165, 1994); and Title III prohibits discrimination in access to public goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations (42 U.S.C. §§ 12181–12189, 1994). The definition of disability, however, is not presented in the titles. However, in 42 U.S. Code § 12102(2), the code defines disability as “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.” This act attempts to protect people with disabilities from being excluded from full participation in employment and in other public spaces and entities.

In the United Kingdom, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) (1995) aimed at ending employment discrimination for people with disabilities (Konur, 2002). In addition to this act, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) (2001) and the Disability Discrimination (Amendment) Bill (DDAB) (2002) have prompted public discussion regarding the effectiveness of the DDA in protecting people with disabilities. One point of contention with the DDA was the exclusion of higher education and school education from its coverage, although those institutions were responsible for publishing disability statements. The lack of governmental protection regarding protection and inclusion of people with disabilities in the educational systems prompted the enactment of SENDA, which placed education within DDA coverage (Konur, 2001). Despite the initiatives to create comprehensive coverage for people with disabilities, individuals deemed disabled because of mental illness are relatively ignored. Public rhetoric demonstrates existing stigma attached to mental illness, thus skepticism and denial of discrimination against mentally ill individuals and people with disabilities at large continues.

Employment discrimination.

In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces the Equal Opportunity Employment (EOE) Act, the federal discrimination in employment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers establishments with fifteen or more employees. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects against employment discrimination based on race and color, national origin, sex, or religion. As a caveat of the Civil Rights Act, individuals are protected from discrimination with regard to recruitment, hiring, advancement, compensation, job training, termination, and other work-related terms and/or conditions. Title VII makes it illegal for employers to use race, color, or national origin, sex, or religion to refuse hiring, disciplining, terminating, denying training, failing to promote, paying less, demoting, harassing, or creating a hostile work environment. Under this policy, employees are also free from retaliation, segregation, or isolation from other employees, Title VII provides freedom for individuals to marry or associate with individuals of different races; become members of ethnic-based organizations and/or groups; attend or participate in faith-based organizations, worship ceremonies, or cultural practices as long as there is no interference in the ability of one to perform his or her job duties. Outside of the United States, applying U.S. employment discrimination laws to international employers creates a significant challenge as multinational businesses continue to form and expand (Posthuma, Roehling, & Campion, 2006). Applying discrimination laws to international employers involves multiple sources of legal authority, which may include U.S. statutes, international treaties, and laws of the host country.

Gender discrimination.

This form of discrimination occurs on the basis and expression of gender identity, perceived or actual. It has been argued that gender discrimination and sexism are different conceptually, but within the American legal system the term “sexism” has been legally interpreted to be the same. Thus, Title VII of the US Employment of Non Discrimination Act (ENDA; H.R. 1755/S.815) (Human Rights Campaign, 2013). Despite the legislation, it does not protect against gender non-conformity and thus, individuals expressing non-binary forms of gender identity may not receive the same protections as their gender conforming counterparts. One of the more pressing battles of gender discrimination that has been long fought has been obtaining the right for women to participate in politics through the basic right of voting. Women’s Suffrage, the pursuit of women being granted the right to vote and seek electoral office, was first granted to adult women in New Zealand in 1893 (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2013); in South Australia by a British colony in 1894 (Government of South Australia, 2001); in Southern Rhodesia (known today as Zimbabwe) for restricted suffrage for White women in 1919, full suffrage for White women in 1957, and for all Blacks in 1980 (Heads of State of Zimbabwe, 2006); in the US in 1920 (Mann, 2014); in Greece in 1952 (Sianou, 2000); in Switzerland in 1971 (Smith, 2008); in Liechtenstein in 1984 (“Around the World, 1984); and in United Arab Emirates (limitedly for women and men) in 2006 (Pichon, 2013). Despite that there are countries where women still do not have the right to vote, the large spread of women gaining the right to vote has been the first step in women fully participating in democracy.

Because of the bias against women and individuals expressing non-gender conformity, gender discrimination can be found in a variety of social, political, and cultural institutions, for example, social and political institutions, such as child marriages, that still occur in Southeast Asia and countries on the continent of Africa. Girls less than eighteen years old are married to older men who are given dowries. Gender discrimination manifests in religious arenas where women’s clothing is controlled and resistance to a modest, covered dress attire could result in violence against a woman by the religious police as well as in social institutions, in which women’s behavior is controlled by men and resistance results in violence against her, and in cultural practices that force female genitalia mutilation of girls who have no way of refusing, that passively by default of lenient laws fail to adequately punish sexual assaults, that promote violent actions against lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer, questioning, intersexed, curious, or two-spirit individuals, that use rape as a weapon of war, that force sterilization/infanticide/sex-selective abortion, or that facilitate sexual slavery (Ataya & Usta, 2010; Bradley, 2011; Manjoo, 2011). All of these practices within the legal system are mainly forbidden; however, not all of these practices are reported and even when they are reported may never be punished or punished severely.

Housing discrimination.

As evidenced in Chicago, red lining is a discriminatory practice that restricts certain people from residing in neighborhoods. The bulk of people of color today in Chicago still reside in South Chicago. Their residence in this area directly relates to real estate agents deciding what part of the city in which they wanted to restrict people of color, specifically black people. A map of the city was posted and red tape was physically placed on the wall. Real estate agents were instructed to show houses only within the boundaries of the red tape when the potential buyer of the home was black. The first known record of this practice dates back to the 1950s. Despite the changes in the topography of the housing market in Chicago seventy years later, black residents of the south side Chicago still predominate in the area. The practice of red lining demonstrates the duration and extent of discriminatory practices within a community even after the practice has been abandoned.

In 2000, Delta Funding Corporation, a subprime mortgage lender, agreed to pay remediation of approximately $7 million because it practiced racially motivated, instead of risk-based, lending practices toward black women. Black women, regardless of income and credit scores, were found to have received, among all racial groups, the highest levels of subprime loans and to have paid higher fees (Fishbein & Woodall, 2006).

In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created to reduce the financial cost of down payments and the number of monthly mortgage payments, to provide lower interest rates for long-term mortgages, and to assist families unable to pay their mortgages. In 1933, the creation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) assisted families in reclaiming their homes lost to foreclosures. Unfortunately, but similar to other policies, African Americans were prevented from obtaining access to these policy benefits. For two years in the late 1940s, the FHA supported housing discrimination through racial covenants under the guise of ensuring neighborhood stability, thus providing a racial model of discriminatory financial policies through the HOLC (Mendenhall, 2010). This model could now serve as a framework for future government, banking, mortgage, lending, and real estate institutions to alleviate housing crises (mainly for whites) or to promote discrimination (against families of color).

Because of current waves of immigration, European countries, such as the cities of Spain, have reported a growing trend of housing discrimination. Consequently, the legal system has addressed the growing numbers of immigrants in analyzing various types of housing discrimination, and it has identified legal protections against it afforded under European, Spanish, and Catalan Law. In 2007, the Catalan Right to Housing Act constituted the premier, most comprehensive European law against housing discrimination. The act includes provisions defining direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and positive legal action (Ponce, 2010). This European law could serve as a model for the American legal system in exemplifying an example of other forms of anti-discrimination legislation and policies.

National origin.

This form of discrimination is based on unfavorable treatment of people from a particular country, including unfavorable treatment attributed to their ethnicity, accent, or dress attire. It also includes unfavorably treating individuals married to, involved with, or associated with individuals who are from a particular country and whose ethnicity, accent, and dress attire reflect that fact. In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination related to employers refusing to hire, promote, fire, pay, train, refuse fringe benefits, or assign jobs to individuals because they are from a particular country (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, n.d.).

Additionally, in the United States, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate, in terms of hiring, promoting, firing, paying, training, providing fringe benefits, or assigning jobs based upon an individual’s immigration or citizenship status (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, n.d.). If an individual has legal documents to establish employment eligibility, then an employer, according to the act, must accept the appropriate documentation and follow employment procedures in accordance with the law. Exceptions are made in cases in which additional legal documents are needed or in cases where national security may be threatened. However, in those cases, employers are expected to inform the individual of the additional documentation and direct him or her to the appropriate agencies.

Racial discrimination.

Discrimination based on immutable characteristics associated with race, color, hair texture, or certain facial features or based on a condition that predominately affects members of a specific race violates Title VII, unless it is work-related and necessary for job performance. For example, requiring cashiers to remove any form of hair covering may be offensive to Muslim women and East Asian Christian women who cover their hair because uncovered hair is not a work-related task or necessary for job completion. Another example is an employer creating a “no facial hair” policy, which may discriminate against African American men who are predisposed to pseudofolliculitis barbae, a condition producing severe and painful shaving bumps that may become infected if left untreated. This policy does not violate Title VII if it is work-related and necessary to carry out job duties.

Religious discrimination.

The First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution protect the religious freedoms of individuals against government infringement but not against private infringement (Edwards & Kaplan, 1971). In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also deems religious discrimination as an unlawful employment practice; hence, it bolsters the belief that religious freedom is a fundamental right in the United States (Edwards & Kaplan). The act prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Furthermore, the act requires employers to reasonably accommodate religious practices of employees or prospective employees, except when the accommodation would create undue hardships upon the employer.

Reasonable religious accommodations are any adjustments to work environments that allow employees to practice their religion: flexible work schedules, voluntary substitutions to honor religious holidays/events, job reassignments, or lateral job transfers. Other protections afforded by the act are employer guidelines on scheduling examinations or other selection activities on days not in conflict with employees’ religious needs, on forgoing inquiry regarding applicants’ future availability at certain times related to their religious needs, on forgoing adopting/maintaining a restrictive dress code targeting employees’ religious practices, on refusing permission to employees’ to observe a religious holiday or time-specific practice. Nevertheless, employers are protected from the above guidelines if they can demonstrate that upholding these guidelines would cause undue hardships (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Undue hardships in accommodating an applicant’s or employee’s religious practice include increased administrative costs, diminished efficiency in work productivity, infringements on the job rights and benefits of other employees, impairments in work safety, unfair distribution of workload imposed on other coworkers, conflicts with other laws and regulations, and/or violations on the terms, conditions, or rights of a collective bargaining agreement or seniority system. Additionally, employees whose religious practices forbid them from paying union dues to a labor organization cannot be required to pay, but they may pay an equal amount to a charitable organization.

In Europe, religious discrimination is forbidden by several laws, including the anti-discrimination directive under Article 13 of the European Community Treaty, the Human Rights Act of 1998, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Hepple & Choudhury, 2001). However, dissenters believe that in France, a law that was passed in 2004 banning headscarves, which are worn mostly by women practicing Islamic customs, in state schools is a form of religious discrimination (Shah, 2006). The passing of this law in France is in opposition of the bills of rights that, to an extent, substantiate religious freedom. Although France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have passed these bills, only the United Kingdom has adopted the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 1953 (2006). Because of the lack of protection afforded Muslim women due to the ban on wearing headscarves, professional women have failed to be hired, have lost jobs, or have failed to be promoted.

Sexual identity discrimination.

In the United States, these group members have been slow to receive legal protections and constitutional rights and guarantees due to opposition from groups, mainly consisted of conservative religious and political groups, that deem LGBTQQIC2 members as lacking appropriate morals (Rostosky, Riggle, Horne, Nicolas Denton, & Huellemeier, 2010). Despite the opposition from religious and political groups in the United States, LGBTQQIC2 members and allies have advocated for the constitutional right to marry, which some states have upheld. Further, some companies offer health and life insurance coverage to employees who have civil partnerships. Unlike in the United States, in the United Kingdom progressive policies have been passed providing legal provisions and regulations protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation (Aspinall & Mitton, 2008). Furthermore, same-sex couples have received rights similar to their heterosexual counterparts. The United Kingdom has enacted equality legislation and equality governance with sexual orientation serving as the basis for this movement. Despite the efforts made to promote equal opportunities among this population, policies and regulations are futile if compliance is lacking. Governmental departments and organizations must develop strategies to monitor compliance and establish a shared evidence base of good practices (Aspinall & Mitton, 2008).

Implications for Social Work Practice

Despite the charge and purpose of the profession of social work to work against discrimination, the profession has played a part in upholding discrimination in practice. Historically, the profession of social work has been criticized for promoting white middle-class ideals, failing to respond to the racial, gender, and sexual revolutions of the 1960s, and overall serving as a handmaiden of the status quo (Abramovitz, 1998; Wagner, 1990). Early social workers engaged in discriminatory practices when societal problems were identified as being rooted in individual development, family composition, or family dynamics (Abramovitz, 1998). If families did not possess the values, standards, or attitudes complicit with social workers, families were often denied services. Most of these characteristics upheld white, middle-class values that low-income, people of color, or immigrant communities may not have valued or were deemed unimportant, unrealistic, or inappropriate given their social location, financial status, or quality of living. Nevertheless, over time the social work profession has worked to overcome the failings of its past and has now adopted professional values emphasizing the uniqueness of difference, individual worth and dignity, and social justice to name a few.

The National Association of Social Workers has included in the Code of Ethics appropriate behaviors regarding practice and research that specifically address discrimination. The profession has affirmed fighting to end discrimination to be one of its responsibilities. Because discrimination is so ingrained in the social fabric of human interaction, especially in Western societies, increased awareness and sensitivity about discriminatory behavior, thoughts, attitudes, situations, events, and all of the different ways it exists is the first way of distinguishing it. Increasing awareness and sensitivity about discrimination may evoke an array of unpleasant and harsh feelings, thoughts, and behaviors in those who uphold it. Discrimination as a tool helps one to discern one’s value of self from others, which is quite powerful. Additionally, the ability to decide who gets access to resources and services, how resources are distributed, and who will assume power for ongoing decision making is quite powerful. As groups compete for access, resources, and power, discrimination as a tool becomes useful in reducing competition from others and maintaining the status quo by advantaged groups. It is a quick way to separate out the deserved from the undeserved, the worthy from the unworthy, us versus them. It has been so ingrained in Western civilization that it often goes undetected and unchallenged. Discrimination is so pervasive within society that targeted group members will internalize the discrimination and then begin to perpetuate it within their respective groups.

As social workers, we must recognize how discrimination has deleterious acts on targeted groups, specifically individuals, families, groups, and communities. For example, housing discrimination deters or prevents intergenerational accumulation and transference of wealth within families through housing-related investments. Particularly in the United States, owning a home, housing rentals, or property can serve as an avenue for generating wealth beyond earning a salary from employment. Individuals who are unable to own a home miss out on tax credits or reliefs that return more of their taxed income into their households. Additionally, being restricted to live in a low-income housing complex or neighborhood may subject an individual to communities with higher crime rates, no accessible parks and recreation facilities, low-quality grocery stores or no grocery stores, neighborhoods without sidewalks, and other negative characteristics that impinge on neighborhood health and wellness.

Social workers have a major interest in understanding the effects of discrimination and implementing strategies for ending it. As the profession attempts to ameliorate the lives of marginalized and disenfranchised communities, implementing culturally sensitive practice models become imperative. Despite the already dense social curricula that exist, the discipline of social work must teach social work students practice models that identify the multiple faces of discrimination that may produce additive effects on the lives of targeted members and groups. The profession of social work needs to acknowledge the effects that multiple forms of discrimination have on individuals belonging to targeted groups. Given the nexus between the role of power and privilege and privilege and oppression, deeper analyses and discussions need to take place.

Social workers along with other social scientists have researched the biopsychosocial effects of discrimination on mental and physical health. We know that dire consequences occur when discrimination goes unaddressed and becomes longstanding. Given what is known about the effects of discrimination, what is less understood are macro-level strategies that extinguish discrimination altogether. Federal policies purport that discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin is illegal in employment, however, identifying and enforcing the elimination of discrimination is challenging. Social workers need to continue researching strategies to reduce and eliminate discrimination to create both micro- and macro-level strategies.


According to the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics 4.02 social workers should not practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical disability. Therefore, social workers are charged with eliminating all forms of discrimination and refraining from engaging in any action that would be considered discriminatory on the aforementioned basis. Additionally, as presented in code 6.04-d. social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical disability.

These standards explicitly emphasize what the profession of social work values and what the profession esteems to represent. Given these social and moral actions, the Code of Ethics provides a set of ethical principles and standards to govern social work behavior in relation to discrimination. These standards on discrimination serve as a guide for social workers who as a part of their professional commitment agree to uphold such standards and to behave accordingly.


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Further Reading

  • Dominelli, L. (2008). Anti-racist social work. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
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  • Leighniger, L. (1987). Social work: Search for identity (Vol. 4). New York: Greenwood Press.
  • Spano, R. (1982). Rank & file movement in social work. Washington, DC: University of America Press.
  • Wagner, D. (1989). Radical movements in the social services: A theoretical framework. Social Service Review, 63(2), 264–284.