On Monday 12JUL04, much of the BBC’s UK news featured parts of a story headlined on BBC News Online as ‘Shocking’ racism in jobs market.
Five Live’s Ian Shoesmith was interviewed on BBC1’s lightweight Breakfast programme. The story was also on BBC News Online, BBC One O’Clock News, and as a lead item on the BBC London news at lunchtime, 6.30pm and 10.30pm.
Watching and reading the various takes, it boils down to:
1) six fictitious candidates, three male, three female, two with traditional British names (Jenny Hughes and John Andrews), two with African names (Abu Olasemi and Yinka Olatunde) and two with Asian names (Fatima Khan and Nasser Hanif).
2) applications from each of the six in response to adverts for a job at each of fifty companies (“Many… well known… jobs covered a range of fields”), thirty-one of them based in London.
3) the CVs were of “the same standard of qualifications and experience but… were presented differently”.
4) of all the applications (100 for each pair of names), the traditional British named pair were offered 23 interviews, the African named pair 13 interviews and the Asian named pair 9 interviews.
5) Shoesmith followed up with five of the fifty employers, three of whom responded in an unspecified way, one of whom “disputed the findings”, claiming to have offered interviews to “one or two” of the non-traditional British named candidates, but this was disregarded because “we had to go on what we received”.
Example conclusions drawn from the above are:
– Shoesmith was “‘surprised by the sheer extent’ of religious and racial discrimination it uncovered”;
– Brendan Barber of the TUC said “Statistics as shocking as these suggest that many people recruiting for the private sector firms are harbouring inherently racist views. Public sector bodies have to prove they are doing all they can to eliminate race discrimination”;
– Professor Muhammad Anwar of Warwick University said “the survey was proof of a recent rise in anti-Muslim feeling”.
From the information provided (the above summary really is all of the detail that can be discerned), there are a number of flaws with, and omissions from, the survey, the accompanying news reports and the rentaquote conclusions drawn from it, including:
– the survey sample was very small – just fifty jobs, with six applications for each, meaning that small errors (e.g. missing post) one way or the other have a large effect on the apparent outcome;
– the success rate of all the applications is poor – it would be much more significant if, say, one pair had a 60-70% hit rate in contrast to the other groups – it doesn’t say much for the standard of the fictional applications in general;
– the CVs were of “the same standard of qualifications and experience but… were presented differently” – no examples are provided. When sifting job applications presentation is often the first consideration – poorly written, poorly spelled and poorly laid out CVs can be quickly rejected, so unless the survey applications were genuinely alike in every respect, it is likely this will have affected the outcome;
– beyond the details above, nothing is said about the nature of the jobs, the types of companies, their sizes or locations;
– we don’t know the backgrounds of the people processing the applications or the methods used to decide between one application or another. Maybe they read them. Maybe they cut the pile in two. Maybe they picked the first twenty for interview. Who knows? Certainly not the BBC with their lack of rigorous follow-ups (and why limit follow ups to just five employers anyway?);
– the BBC ascribes attributes to the three pairs of names – White, Black-African and Muslim. Leaving aside that there are many Black and Asian Britons with traditional British names, I cannot, in spite of being well read and living in Greater London, distinguish people’s religious backgrounds from their names, except in a few obvious cases (e.g. a Mohammed is almost certainly a Muslim, a Patrick O’Flaherty is most likely Catholic etc.), so it seems a big stretch to conclude that these employers rejected someone on the grounds of religion (e.g. Muslim) rather than simply ethnicity (e.g. Asian), if indeed racism played a part;
This is all very troubling. Racism does exist in the UK, in (but not throughout) all groups and communities, white, black, Asian, etc. But this ‘survey’ (some reports even called it an ‘undercover investigation’) does not merit the conclusions drawn from it. At best it suggests there is a case for a proper study of such issues, perhaps a Panorama style investigation. But not the shock, horror headlines that have been used so glibly already.
A proper investigation should include:
– a much larger sample with a wider variety of candidate names (i.e. names with obvious religious connections, names from different parts of the UK, continental names, names from different classes (e.g. how does Wayne Smith fare compared with Tarquin Fortescue for different types of jobs), etc.;
– proper follow-ups with all employers to ascertain their backgrounds, selection methods and reasoning;
– distinction between employers – to ascertain the extent of racism among white/black/Asian/Muslim/etc. employers when it comes to employing people apparently from other groups – racism isn’t limited to white people;
– analysis of the differences between the private-sector and the public-sector (given that the former are often very small businesses, the latter much larger more bureaucratic organisations, where stats would be more meaningful);
Until then it’s wrong for a small item on a small radio station to become the inspiration for a great deal of “employers are racist” headlines across a wide variety of major BBC broadcasts.
Addendum (for B-BBC scare-quote aficionados):
The first News Online version, timestamped 11.22BST, began:
A BBC survey showing applicants from ethnic minorities still face widespread discrimination in the job market has prompted calls for tougher regulation.
CVs from six fictitious candidates – who were given “white”, black African or Muslim names – were sent to 50 employers in the BBC Radio Five Live survey.
White candidates were much more likely to be given an interview than similarly qualified black or Asian people.
The second version, timestamped 14:46BST, begins:
A union boss is calling for tougher regulation after a BBC survey showed ethnic minority applicants still face major discrimination in the jobs market
CVs from six fictitious candidates – who were given traditionally white, black African or Muslim names – were sent to 50 firms by Radio Five Live.
White “candidates” were far more likely to be given an interview than similarly qualified black or Asian “names”.
Note the aimless scare-quote merry-go-round and how the level of journo-spin ratchets up from cub-journo to junior-journo as the day progressed!