Racism Alive and Well Among Australian Employers

“After finishing TAFE in 2005 I applied for several junior positions where no expertise in sales was needed — even though I had worked for two years as a junior sales clerk. I didn’t receive any calls so I decided to legally change my name to Gabriella Hannah. I applied for the same jobs and got a call 30 minutes later.”
∼Gabriella Hannah, formerly Ragda Ali, Sydney.

A few years ago, I heard about an experiment in which Australian researchers sent out a bunch of identical job applications, differing only from the ethnicity of the applicants’ names. The aim was to see how those with non-Anglo names would fare better compared to those with Anglo Saxon-sounding names. The study found applications with non-Anglo titles were significantly less likely to receive a call back from prospective employers.

As someone from a non-Anglo background who has undergone plenty of racism in Australia, I was intrigued and wanted to read the actual study. However, cursory searches on the Web failed to locate it (the Sydney Morning Herald seems to have been the only major media outlet that bothered to report the study). It wasn’t till recently, while looking for another paper, that I stumbled upon it.

To save you hours of fruitless web searching, the newspaper could be freely accessed here:

Evidence from a Field Experiment

So what did the experiment involve?

Well, in 2007, Australian National University researchers Alison Booth, Andrew Leigh and Elena Vargonova randomly submitted over 4,000 fictional applications for entry-level tasks (hospitality, data entry, customer service, sales) marketed on the internet. The programs were identical, save for the racial origin of the assumed applicants’ names.

The experiment included three Australian cities: Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

Overall, applicants with Chinese titles fared the worst, with only a one-in-five chance of getting requested in for interviews, in comparison to applicants with Anglo-Saxon names whose chances exceeded one-in-three.

Depending on the results, a Chinese-named candidate would need to put in 68 percent more software than an Anglo-named applicant to receive the identical number of calls . A Middle Eastern-named applicant needed 64 percent more, an indigenous-named applicant 35 percent more and an Italian-named applicant 12 percent more.

There were several differences between cities. Sydney was the most discriminatory towards Chinese and Middle Eastern titles, but more accepting of native names.

Melbourne, meanwhile, provided the sole exception to the rule. In that city, Italian-named applicants actually had a 7% greater likelihood of getting a call back. However, the difference was not statistically significant.

“However, what it does permit you to say,” said Dr. Leigh, “is that there’s no statistically discernible discrimination against Italian titles in Melbourne. They are as well-regarded as Anglo names.

“This might be because Melbourne has a greater share of Italians compared to other Australian cities, and has had for quite a long time. Discrimination tends to be greater when you have a recent influx of arrivals, as Sydney has from China and the Middle East.

“Or it might be because a number of the jobs we pretended to use were waiter and waitressing positions in bistros, bars, cafes and restaurants.”

On a personal level, in all my years of seeing and then living in Melbourne, no-one ever called me a racist epithet. The same, sadly, cannot be said for Adelaide, Sydney and the Gold Coast (which sits around 70km south of Brisbane). Melbourne is by far the most cosmopolitan of Australian cities, with important Greek and Italian populations.

Asked if the study had found that Australian employers were homeless, Dr Leigh said it was clear they discriminated on the basis of their racial origin of applicants’ names. “There is no other reasonable interpretation of our results,” he said.

The fake applications had made clear that the assumed job-seekers had finished secondary schooling in Australia, making it unlikely the employers supposed the non-Anglo applicants couldn’t speak English.

Employers were given the option to respond to applications via email or phone. The investigators set up phone lines with an answering machine, all which had a message left by someone with a regular Australian accent. The researchers did this because applicants were supposed to differ only by their racial origin, not by their own English language skills, and they desired to guard against the potential for a prospective interviewer simply hanging up if they heard that a foreign-sounding voice. If the researchers had used voicemail accents to match the ethnicity of the names, then it is quite possible the difference in call back rates would have been even more pronounced.

If you’re looking for work in Australia and have an accent then, regrettably, it might be wise to have an Australian-sounding acquaintance record your voice message to you.

And we take lots of f#ckin’ drugs! (Australia has the highest per capita rate of illegal drug use on earth ). Meanwhile, in many other areas of the world, people eat meat, drink beer and can frequently speak English in addition to their native language.

USA: To receive a call back, African-Americans had to submit 1.5 software for every application submitted by someone with an Anglo-Saxon name.

Canada: Indian, Chinese and Pakistani applicants had to submit 1.31, 1.46 and 1.44 applications, respectively.

A series of studies conducted in the UK between 1969 and 1997 also showed widespread employer discrimination, however direct comparison with the above-mentioned results is precluded from the differing time periods.

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