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When your name can set you back

Ethnic minority candidates have to apply for more jobs to get the same number of interviews, argues Booth.

Last Modified: 07 May 2013 12:04
Alison Booth

Alison Booth is Professor of Economics at the Australian National University and an ANU Public Policy Fellow. She is the author of The Jingera Trilogy.
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"Policymakers can implement anonymous job application procedures and can undertake - or commission - a field experiment to evaluate their effects," writes author [EPA]

You are applying for a job and you work hard on your resume. You type in your qualifications and experience. And of course your name. Maybe you do not give a second thought to this. After all, what s in a name when you are applying for a job? Surely, it is only your degrees and experience that matter, not your name or ethnicity. If two job applicants have exactly the same resume, they should have an equal probability of being selected for a job interview, shouldn't they? 

To investigate this, my colleagues - Andrew Leigh, Elena Varganova - and I carried out a large-scale field experiment in Australia. Our goal was to see if there is any labour market discrimination against ethnic minorities.

With one in four residents born overseas, Australia is often regarded as something of a poster child for its ability to absorb new migrants into its social and economic fabric. Skilled migrants are selected through a points system, which gives preference to applicants with high qualifications and workers in high-demand occupations.

Australia's points-based immigration policy has not only been much admired, but has also been adopted by other countries, including New Zealand and the UK. And in Australia, we give everyone a fair go, don't we? 

Well, maybe not… To investigate if there is ethnic discrimination by employers, we conducted what is termed a correspondence discrimination study, in which fictitious individuals, identical in all respects apart from their ethnicity, apply for jobs.

After obtaining ethics approval from the Australian National University, my co-authors and I randomly submitted over 4,000 fictional applications for entry-level jobs. In terms of number of applications submitted, this was one of the biggest correspondence studies ever conducted. The large size of the study allowed us to look at a range of ethnic groups, where ethnicity was indicated only by the name of the job applicant. The names we used were from five broad ethnicities: Anglo-Saxon, Indigenous, Italian, Chinese and Middle Eastern. We were interested in measuring call-back rates for interviews, and we focused on urban areas alone.

In all cases, we applied for entry-level jobs and submitted a resume indicating that the candidate attended high school in Australia. The findings were both startling and robust. 

Consider Anglicising your name if you live and work in a country where Anglo names are in the majority. Or if you do not, consider changing it to match with the dominant group.

Alison Booth

In particular, we found that ethnic minority candidates would need to apply for more jobs in order to receive the same number of invitations to interviews. Moreover, these differences vary systematically across ethnic groups. To get as many interviews as an Anglo applicant with an Anglo-sounding name, an Indigenous person must submit 35 percent more applications, a Chinese person must submit 68 percent more applications, an Italian person must submit 12 percent more applications and a Middle Eastern person 64 percent more applications.

This study has implications for the individual jobseeker as well as for policy.

For the individual, what is the advice? Consider Anglicising your name if you live and work in a country where Anglo names are in the majority. Or if you do not, consider changing it to match with the dominant group. This is the counsel given by some immigration lawyers. They sometimes also recommend that you do not put your country of birth on your application and only mention your language skills if they are relevant to the job you are applying for. 

But can policymakers also do something? Yes, and here is one suggestion. Policymakers can implement anonymous job application procedures and can undertake - or commission - a field experiment to evaluate their effects. First, find a few companies or government departments. For these companies, set up two groups - the treatment group and the control. The control group might be all job applicants for the previous year and the treatment would be all the new applicants for the next year for whom anonymous job applications would be introduced. (Alternatively the control group might be half of all new applicants, and then introduce anonymous job applications for the other half.) Evaluations would consider whether or not this process is cumbersome, and evaluate its impact on ethnic and gender call-backs for the treatment group, compared with the control group. 

Is this possible? Of course it is, and it has been done. In Germany, in November 2010, the Federal Anti-discrimination Agency initiated a field experiment along these lines, with anonymous job applications (no name, no photograph, no ethnicity or gender). The results showed that standardised anonymised application forms were associated with equal chances of applicants of different minorities receiving a job interview. This is just as you'd expect. Standardised anonymous application forms were also found to be easily implemented. 

Can this be done this in other countries? Let us see what the policymakers and anti-discrimination agencies have to say. 

Alison Booth is Professor of Economics at the Australian National University and an ANU Public Policy Fellow. She is also the author of A Distant Land, published in 2012.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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