“Do you know that in our country today, even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get callbacks for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names?” David Cameron posed this rhetorical question to a sea of Tories at the Conservative party conference in Manchester last year, citing an example where a young black woman had to change her name to Elizabeth to get a job in London.
However, ‘Elizabeth’ is not alone. According to Biju Menon, the founder of the UK’s first ‘name-blind’ job marketplace, Nottx.com, a quarter of professional women in the UK with ‘non-white sounding’ names have changed their monickers to get a job. Research from the job marketplace estimates approximately 50,300 minorities may have changed their name in the IT and finance sectors alone, of which 28,300 of them are female.
“Unconscious bias is definitely more prevalent in finance and technology because they are vibrant sectors where the stakes are higher. With the boom of innovation and growth in these sectors, there was an urgent need for businesses to get the right people in a shorter time frame,” Menon explained, suggesting why ethical hiring in these sectors fell by the wayside in these fields.
Gender and ethnicity
Nottx pooled candidates across different sectors into focus groups to identify the difference in the rate of which unconscious bias was happening. The research found the incidence of name-changing among professional men was lower than women at one-tenth.
However, while more than half of the men surveyed felt they had been discriminated against due to their ethnicity, 78 per cent of women felt both their gender and ethnicity were barriers to employment.
“There is an insidious culture of unconscious bias in the corporate world against professionals who are either female, an ethnic minority or both,” Menon said. “Even if companies at a management level want to do something to address unconscious biases, it’s very difficult to implement it without a name-blind approach.”
Only 0.3 per cent of the anonymous respondents said they would be willing to speak out publicly on the issue of ‘name-changing’. Among those who declined to comment, the most common reason provided by two-thirds of the respondents was a fear that it would affect their future job prospects.
Nearly all respondents (97 per cent) who did change their name when applying for jobs reported a higher level of call-backs from potential employers relative to their efforts under their legal name.
The name-blind approach
Two years ago, the law firm Clifford Chance adopted a “blank CV” approach which took university and school names off graduate applications. The result was almost immediate, boosting diversity and innovation in its workforce. “The legal sector often relies on Oxbridge candidates as a measure of quality. A name-blind approach helped Clifford Chance move away from that elitist approach,” Menon explained.
As a former consultant and headhunter, Menon has seen the impact diversified workforce can have on productivity and innovative thinking. He set up Nottx earlier this year in the UK and US based on a combination of a strong need for the industry and an opportunity for business. “The model we have created, we hope, is the best start to shift the paradigm in the coming years.”
The platform is essentially a marketplace for candidates and employers. Candidates can create a profile without revealing their gender, name, ethnicity – markers that may discriminate their candidature.
“All candidates need to reveal is their work experience, skill sets, availability and location. We encourage them not to reveal too much because there’s a tendency for employers to run a search on other social media sites to know more, which can compromise their anonymity,” Menon said.
Employers can use the platform’s search tool to find candidates based on the role criteria. “Obviously they wouldn’t know who the candidate is, but they would know there’s a chief financial officer with 20 years of experience in mergers and acquisitions, for example. They’ll see a brief introduction of the candidate which is good enough to start an engagement.”
Candidates can decide to reveal their identity when they feel confident that it’s a genuine approach from a legitimate organisation based on merit. “We moderate companies to make sure they don’t abuse the system. It’s crucial for us to give confidence to candidates by curating potential employers,” Menon added.
Across the pond
Responses from Nottx.com’s US platform were more evenly distributed across both genders, with 17 per cent of respondents on average saying they had changed their name in the past. However, a higher overall proportion in the US said they would be ‘very likely’ to change their name in future at 24 per cent
In the UK, the NHS and civil service have pledged to adopt ‘name-blind’ recruitment processes within the next four years, according to the Cabinet Office.
Graduate recruiters such as KPMG, HSBC, Deloitte, Virgin Money and the BBC have also committed to name-blind CVs for all graduate and apprentice roles, suggesting that the tides of biased recruiting may be shifting in the near future.
From Kayo to Kayla
Kayo Anosike decided to change careers at the age of 39. Having worked in the music industry as a course director in further education for years, Anosike decided to retrain and enter the corporate world, starting with completing a master’s degree in business psychology at the University of Westminster, specialising in unconscious bias in the workplace.
She then sent her CV to a wide range of potential employers. However, despite having the right experience for each of the jobs advertised, Anosike didn’t receive any calls to interview. Leaning on her academic background, she changed her name to Kayla Benjamin online to test her theory. Almost immediately after that, she received multiple calls to interview. After securing a job, she explained away her legal name as her ‘African name’ and has retained her ‘professional name’ ever since.
Although she has since changed roles and is now happily employed in the IT sector as a training consultant, she highlights that unconscious name-bias is pervasive in the corporate world.
“All it took was for a potential employer to meet me and see I was the right person for the job. But my name was an enormous sticking point in getting to that first stage,” she explained.
“I can see why women in particular don’t want to talk openly about this because they are battling the joint prejudices of gender and ethnicity,” she added, citing a fear being labelled a “problem employee” for addressing this issue with HR.