The so-called “sharing economy” has boomed in recent years, but critics continue to point to a lack of equity for workers who are categorized as contractors. (Many applauded this week when Seattle City Council passed legislation giving drivers for companies such as Uber and Lyft the power to unionize.) When it comes to the user end of on-demand businesses, three Harvard researchers recently found, the numbers can also stack up against equal access.

Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb
Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb © AP Photo/Eric Risberg

According to “Racism in the Sharing Economy,” a working paper that looked at the Airbnb booking process, “requests from guests with distinctively African-American names are roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively white names.” It didn’t matter whether the host was black or white, or male or female.

This discrimination, the researchers note, can be costly for the hosts, who reject guests and then are only able to find a replacement guest 35 percent of the time. “On the whole, our analysis suggests a need for caution,” they write. “While information can facilitate transactions, it also facilitates discrimination.”

For the field study, researchers Benjamin Edelman, Michael Luca and Dan Svirsky sent out nearly 6,400 messages to hosts in five cities — D.C., Baltimore, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Dallas — from invented profiles with different names. They didn’t include a profile picture.