To mark the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the House of Commons in the UK held a debate the other day. Among the topics covered were Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and the far right. Leading the debate, Labour MP Faisal Rashid said:
If our institutions and policies are not doing enough to stem the tide of a resurgence in racism, we need to end complacency. If we in our hearts can imagine a better world, let us keep on fighting for it and eliminate racism from our society forever.
Few would disagree with the sentiment in those words, but the debate was equally notable in what it overlooked. One of the worst issues, for instance, is employment, but barely a word was said on the subject. To anyone who is aware of the scale of the problem, this will seem like a disappointing oversight.
One major issue is interview discrimination. A study from the University of Oxford recently showed that black and Asian people have to send almost twice as many job applications as white British people before they get a response. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the rate of discrimination was little better than 50 years ago.
It also echoed research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2009, which found that in major UK cities, ethnic minority applicants were significantly less likely to be called for an interview than people with white-sounding names – regardless of which ethnic group they belonged to. A BBC survey from 2017 had similar findings, too, while the UK government now publishes employment statistics to shine a light on the problem in the public sector.
Studies in other Western countries confirm similar issues. Interview discrimination on ethnic grounds is rife in the Netherlands, for instance, while research in France and Germany has shown similar results in relation to Muslims in those countries. In the German study, for example, there was strong evidence that employers discriminated against applicants with Turkish-sounding names when they included pictures of themselves with headscarves on their CVs.
My research explored what underpins such discrimination. We carried it out in Hanover in northern Germany, where I was based in my previous research post at Leibniz University of Hannover. Unlike those previous French and German studies, which involved sending fake CVs to real employers, we had 120 students play the part of HR personnel in a laboratory. Roughly four-fifths of our participants were of white German background. Each student had to review between 30 and 50 applications for around eight to ten different jobs, ranging from high-skilled to low-skilled and with more or less customer contact.
They could see applicants’ names and photos on the cover pages of CVs and had to assess them based on work experience, expected salary, education, computer skills and English skills. We included some Turkish-looking candidates, including different CVs where the same women were photographed either with and without a headscarf. If our recruiters saw one of these women without a headscarf in one set of applications, we ensured they would see her with a headscarf next time around, and vice versa.
Our participants did not significantly prefer German-looking candidates over Turkish-looking ones, after controlling for the fact that they tended to see the German photos used in our experiment as more attractive. They did discriminate against candidates with headscarves, however, particularly in high-skilled occupations and jobs with more customer contact – and men and older participants tended to discriminate more.
Having said that, applicants with headscarves were not automatically less likely to be called for an interview. Where they were stronger in certain other areas, such as education and work experience, this cancelled out the discrimination and in some cases even put them in a stronger position than “German-looking” rivals with comparable strengths overall. We suspected that the recruiters had prejudices about the abilities of Muslim women which they set aside when they found other evidence that ran contrary.
While there is not the same standard practice of including a photo in your CV in the likes of the UK and France, photos are still common currency in these countries because recruiters commonly look up candidates on social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
If we are to finally get to grips with this problem, employers need to be aware of their potential biases when they review job applications. Standard online application forms that filter out irrelevant information can often help – as was shown in the Department for Work and Pensions study I mentioned earlier.
While it can be helpful for employers to look at an applicant’s social media profile, it can blur your objective judgement if you do it too early in the recruitment process. If you can’t resist looking at LinkedIn, one left-field solution – I kid you not – is this Google Chrome extension which automatically replaces applicants’ photos with random pictures of dogs.
Job applicants who are either Muslim or from ethnic minorities need to be aware of recruiters’ unconscious biases, too – as well as the fact that they can be overcome. Sometimes of course there is also the potential to benefit from an employer’s positive discrimination policy.
Unfortunately, discrimination doesn’t end during the interview process. In the UK, there are still sizeable pay gaps between ethnic workers and white counterparts who do the same job. Some of this can be explained by differences in skills or work experience, but a large proportion appears to be discrimination. So while job market discrimination may not be as fixed and final as some people think, there is still a huge battle ahead to create a truly level playing field for employees. If the UK’s politicians would make this problem more of a priority, it would be an important step in the right direction.