Since moving from Pakistan to Australia, Mariam Mohammed has gained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, co-founded a social enterprise (teaching financial literacy to women), and made the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence list.
But there was a time she was so disheartened at not being able to get a job she considered changing her name to something less “Muslim” and more “Anglo”.
Her experience is not unique.
In the past 50 years, most Western countries have become more tolerant of cultural diversity. Laws now forbid overt forms of discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, or age.
But unconscious biases remain—with one of the most well-documented being discrimination against job applicants with ethnic minority names.
Reviewing 123 resume studies
I have analyzed 123 “resume studies” to get a more fine-grained understanding of name-based discrimination in recruitment.
Resume studies typically involve researchers responding to real job advertisements with very similar resumes of fictitious job candidates. In these studies, some resumes have names indicating an applicant comes from an ethnic minority group, while other resumes have more common names. This enables researchers to compare the responses for the different names.
My review covered studies conducted in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Sweden, and the US.
More than 95% of the studies identified high ethnic discrimination in recruitment. On average, ethnic minority applicants received about half as many positive responses to their job applications.
There were, however, large differences in the degree of discrimination across the studies.
The following chart shows results from a selection of studies in different nations. The “net discrimination rate” is a common measure in resume studies. The higher the percentage, the higher the discrimination. So the resume studies show applicants with Moroccan names in Italy and African or German names in Ireland are more discriminated against than those with Turkish names in Germany.
Just three of the studies did not find any hiring discrimination against ethnic minorities. Only one reported hiring discrimination against the ethnic majority group—a study in Malaysia finding a Chinese name was more helpful than a Malay name. (Chinese Malaysians represent less than a third of Malaysia’s population, but are disproportionately represented in the business class.)
Yes, it really is the name that counts
The most noteworthy finding is the similar degree of discrimination against immigrants and the native-born children of immigrants (or second-generation immigrants).
Studies measured this effect through resumes for candidates with an ethnic minority name but with local educational qualification and work experience. Resumes for first-generation immigrants indicated attendance at foreign schools and universities and no local work experience. The response rate from recruiters was roughly the same.
These results show it is the ethnic minority name that’s the hindrance, rather than an assessment about a candidate’s language skills or a preference for local qualifications and work experience.
Anonymous resumes may not help
One common assumption among recruiters and human resource managers is that deleting the name of the job application should result in a more equal recruitment process.
But the research has returned mixed findings about anonymous resumes.
A 2012 Swedish study, for example, found anonymous resumes did indeed improve the chances for job candidates of non-Western origin (and also for female candidates).
In contrast, a 2015 study in France reported that anonymous resumes increased ethnic discrimination in recruitment. The researchers suggest anonymous resumes might have led to harsher judgments of “negative signals” such as employment gaps.
So anonymous resumes might not be the solution. What recruiters need to focus on instead is training to recognize their unconscious biases and better evaluate resumes based only on applicants’ actual skills and experience.