Discrimination study

Alison Booth, Elena Varganova and I have just released a study comprising three experiments to gauge racial and ethnic discrimination in Australia.

Does Racial and Ethnic Discrimination Vary Across Minority Groups? Evidence From Three Experiments
Alison Booth, Andrew Leigh & Elena Varganova
We conducted several large-scale field experiments to measure labor market discrimination across different minority groups in Australia – a country where one quarter of the population was born overseas. To denote ethnicity, we used distinctively Anglo-Saxon, Indigenous, Italian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern names, and our goal was a comparison across multiple ethnic groups rather than focusing on a single minority as in most other studies. Our main experiment, an audit discrimination study, involved sending over 4000 fictional resumes to employers in response to job advertisements. In all cases, we applied for entry-level jobs and submitted a CV showing that the candidate had attended high school in Australia. We found economically and statistically significant differences in callback rates, suggesting that ethnic minority candidates would need to apply for more jobs in order to receive the same number of interviews. These differences vary systematically across groups, with Italians (a more established migrant group) suffering less discrimination than Chinese and Middle Easterners (who have typically arrived more recently). We also conducted two additional experiments to form a more nuanced picture of prejudice. These were a ‘Return to Sender’ experiment and an Implicit Association Test. The results from both experiments reveal societal prejudice against minority groups, although the ranking sometimes differs from that in the audit discrimination study.

(see also a media release, brief summary of results)

A few words about each of the experiments.

The Jobseeker Study

There were several things that surprised me about the jobseeking experiment:

  • Indigenous applicants seem to face less discrimination at the interview stage than Chinese or Middle Eastern applicants. To get the same number of interviews as an applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name, a Chinese applicant must submit 68% more applications, a Middle Eastern applicant must submit 64% more applications, an Indigenous applicant must submit 35% more applications, and an Italian applicant must submit 12% more applications.
  • Discrimination against Chinese and Middle Eastern jobseekers is highest in Sydney, and lowest in Brisbane. As a Sydneysider, this rather dispelled my notion of tolerant Sydney vs redneck Brissie, but it’s entirely consistent with the literature on migration threat, which finds that an influx of migrants increases prejudice. In the long-term, Sydney may end up more tolerant, but the short-term effect of being the number one destination for immigrants is a rise in prejudice.
  • Even in data-entry jobs, there is substantial discrimination against non-Anglo applicants. This indicates that it can’t just be customer-based discrimination, but must be either driven by coworker or employer biases.

For some real-world evidence to back up the results of the first experiment, here’s a quote from one jobseeker:

“After completing TAFE in 2005 I applied for many junior positions where no experience 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

The chart below shows how Australian discrimination in 2007 compares with similar studies that have been done in other places and at other times. The way to read the vertical axis is that 1 means the minority candidate must submit just as many more applications to get the same number of interviews, 1.5 means the minority candidate must submit 50% more applications to get the same number of interviews, and 2 means the minority candidate must submit twice as many applications to get the same number of interviews.


So it’s worse to be Middle Eastern in Australia in 2007 than in Sweden in 2005, but it’s better to be Indigenous in Australia in 2007 than African-American in the US in 2001. Comparing our results with the 1986 study, it doesn’t look as though discrimination in Australia has fallen over time.

The Return to Sender Experiment

The second experiment was a return-to-sender experiment (a suggestion of my wife). By sending out mis-addressed letters to over 2000 Australian households, we effectively give them two options: to return the letter (costly, but the right thing to do), or put it in the bin (cheap, but slightly naughty). On average, 53% of letters with Anglo names were returned, but only 48-49% of letters with Chinese, Italian or Middle-Eastern names. In other words, 1/20th of Australian households would return a letter if it had an Anglo name, but not if it bore a Chinese, Italian or Middle-Eastern name.


The Implicit Association Test

I’m particularly indebted to the blogosphere for help on the third experiment, which is an Implicit Association Test (anyone who is curious can still take it at http://iat.org.au/). Among the bloggers who kindly directed readers towards the IAT were Larvartus Prodeo, Core Economics, Possum Pollytics, Andrew Norton, Ambit Gambit, Oz Politics, and Club Troppo.

Of course, those who read blogs aren’t a representative sample of Australians, so we reweighted the sample in two ways. The first is pretty standard – we just created demographic weights (making the age-sex-education-birthplace composition of the sample match the general population). But our second technique was more novel: we asked all IAT respondents some questions about their explicit prejudice, and then created prejudice weights, exploiting the fact that the same questions were asked of a nationally-representative sample of respondents in the 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes. So far as we know, we’re the first to have combined implicit and explicit prejudice in this way.

And the results of the IAT? While some people are pro-minority, the average respondent showed a subconscious bias against each of the four minority groups. Here’s the distribution.


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20 Responses to Discrimination study

  1. Ernest Leung says:

    This is depressing. I am a young Australian with Hong Kong heritage. I suppose this means that when I finish university in a few fears time, I will have to send more letters than my Anglo Saxon counterparts. I think this is an affront to all Australians because one of our core values is the ethos of a fair-go. Australia shouldn’t tolerate racism because people like me are Australians too. I think more people need to realize that individuals like me are no less Australians and they want to contribute to their country as much as Anglo Saxon Australians do. I will never anglocise my name because there shouldn’t be a problem being an Australian with a Chinese name.

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  3. Bala says:

    You are doing fantastic work but more needs to be done on these lines as is done in Canada and the UK. Unlike those countries (and the US), there is no recognition in Australia that with the exception of women and indigenous people, there is no need to assist in positively increasing the presence of minorities in all levels of the work force. Canada is most advanced in that they even separate out a category termed VDMs(Visibly Different Minorities) to separate them from European-origin minorities. In Australia, the term minority is not used surprisingly and few studies have been done re sector-wise minority representation in the upper leves of the corporate and private sectors. The existing migrant resource centres/ethnic associations are more focussed on cultural integaration and immigration issues rather than high level participation in the labour market. Commercial TV and advertising are two areas with poor ethnic representation unlike Britain.

  4. Patrick says:

    Dunno Ernst, I bet there is a more finegrained story if your are in finance, law or accounting.

    Bala, there is a need for you to keep track of your negatives. I’m assuming you think that we should have more pro-minority stuff. I (of course, if you’ve ever read a comment of mine before!) disagree.

    What do the UK, US and even Canada (if less so) have in common? Pro-minority programs, apparently, but also more traumatic race (‘minority’) relations than we do. So I will let them keep their pro-minority programs and recognitions and political correctness and bureaucracy and vote for us keeping our ‘work your way in’ generational project, in which the warzone of each generation migrates to Australia, makes a hard-ish time of it but generally is much better off than in the war/famine/communist country they fled, and their kids become basically integrated wogs/lebos/chinese/viets or whatver, and their kids become plain Australians.

    Seems like a cheaper and more efficient means to a better end, if we take the end-point to be something like the respective countries today.

  5. Dinuk says:

    Andrew … i briefly skimmed this paper and thought it was really interesting. I noticed you mentioned that the focus was on waitstaff, data entry, customer service, and sales – and while the paper stated that there was not a focus on jobs that require any post-school qualifications from a personal perspective it would be really interesting to see if people discriminate for jobs that require a university degree. Ernest as a Sri Lankan Australian I’ve never felt discriminated against and from my experience working at PwC, banks and investment banks I have noticed that there has been a large ethnic diversity. Is it possible that jobs that require specialist skills employ ‘the best people’ to maximise return to shareholders while the requirements for lower skilled jobs allows greater scope for prejudices?

    Anyway just some thoughts.

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  7. Andrew L and colleagues used identical CVs because the quality of the CV is an important factor, and the research showed that with the better CVs in the same the people with ethnic sounding names received more call backs than if they had a relatively weak CV.

  8. Matt Moore says:

    Dinuk – Have a look at p. 13 of the study.

    “This suggests that there could potentially be less
    discrimination in higher-skill occupations than in the low-skill jobs analyzed here.”

    Is it possible that jobs that require specialist skills employ ‘the best people’ to maximise return to shareholders while the requirements for lower skilled jobs allows greater scope for prejudices?

    Sounds plausible – also large multinational corporates tend to have stricter rules around discrimination (enforced by the possibility of legal action) – so there are both carrots & sticks.

    From my experience, discrimination in such organisations is now less about overt racial/ethnic prejudice and more about subtle culture/lifestyle discrimination – you either fit with the culture or you leave sharpish. This is always going to be the case (e.g. there are certain characteristics that you want in a bond trader or accountant regardless of their colour, creed or gender) but it does worry me a little.

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  12. Brave Heart says:

    Why compare the job prospects of ethnic minorities with another ethnic minority (namely Anglo SAXONS)?

    Australia is, due to convict and gold rush immigrants, a largely Anglo Celtic culture.

    Fancy taking the patron Saint of Scotland’s name for your SAXON exemplar!!!

    I have witnessed a cultural minister named McDonald claiming to be white anglo SAXON male (makes the Celtic blood boil).

    It is largely due to proffesional people like yourself likening our Anglo-Celtic culture (much more like that of Scotland and Ireland than England) to Anglo Saxon that damages our cultural self image.

    Not a Bloody Saxon

  13. Brave Heart says:

    I just did your IAT and had to compare SAXON with Chinese, I believe the mainstream of OZ is 70% Anglo-Celtic (see reference below).

    I do also note the “Leigh” name as of Norman origin and this may be part of your anti Celt campaign?

    I realise wiki is not the most reliable source but in this case I believe it accurate.

    From the beginning of the colonial era until the mid-20th Century, British and/or Irish comprised the vast majority of settlers, and later, post-Federation immigrants coming to Australia.

    Anglo-Celtic is not a category in the the Australian census. The ABS have stated that most who list “Australian” as their ancestry are part of the Anglo-Celtic group. Australian censuses tend to show significantly fewer people of Scottish and Irish ancestry than ethnic composition studies indicate. Australian demographer Dr James Jupp speculated that many of these people prefer to list themselves as being of Australian ancestry[2].
    In 1999, the Anglo-Celtic ethnic strength in the Australian population was calculated as 69.88%[3]. This represents a proportional decline from 1947 when Anglo-Celtic ethnic strength was 90% and 1988 when it was 74.55%. The study also projected that in 2025 the Anglo-Celtic proportion will fall to 62.5%.

  14. conrad says:

    “Ernest as a Sri Lankan Australian I’ve never felt discriminated against and from my experience working at PwC”
    Being part Asian and growing up up in Aus, I’ve had quite the opposite experience, so I don’t find the results of this surprising at all. I also suggest also forgetting about ideas like this:
    “I think more people need to realize that individuals like me are no less Australians and they want to contribute to their country as much as Anglo Saxon Australians do”
    I think this is just succumbing to rank nationalism, and assumes that there is something about the current culture worth assimilating to. It also means you will contribute more to the people that discriminate against you than, say, if you helped someone in another country where they don’t.

  15. I’ve published a note on this research at:


    Essentially: “Andrew Leigh’s research shows there is some racial stereotyping at the entry level jobs in Australia. This is consistent with similar studies in USA and elsewhere in the West, and confirms that a certain amount of economic racism is definitely prevalent in these societies as noted earlier. Similar stereotyping is also experienced by women and the elderly. In other words, being a person of a non-Anglo background acts as a slight disadvantage in terms of job entry and earnings. Despite this, at the end of their career, people of Indian origin generally figure in the top income brackets in USA and Australia due to their ability to rapidly progress once they get an initial foothold. It is quite possible that reverse racism, against ‘Anglos’ takes place where Indians are owners of a business.


  16. ChrisPer says:

    These studies are very interesting but not definitive. Motive for discrimination is important. The last time I was actually employing people, degreed technical people in the mining industry, I discriminated thoroughly.

    1) Chinese-born candidate had very superior academic qualifications. I persuaded that person to come for interview despite his knowledge that the environment was not comfortable – I mean both the climate and the lower perscent of Chinese people. He declined the job, and rightly because he could do much better.

    2) Eastern European named candidates; two applied and went to the bottom of the pile because their resume showed very patchy Australian employment history and possible written communications difficulties in English (and possibly their home language too). My eastern european colleagues agreed.

    3) Aboriginal candidates; would have been given an automatic interview and high priority. No such luck as to attract a qualified applicant.

    4) Aussie born candidates of any race; some good, many very ordinary applications.

    I can’t remember who got the job – it was one of the ordinary ones because the outstanding ones found more appealing towns to live in.

  17. Dear ChrisPer

    “Motive for discrimination is important.” I gather that the study controlled for all the factors you have cited (superior academic qualifications, Australian employment history, written communications difficulties in English) by sending out an identical resume.

    You do have a point, though. Employers do make use of tacit information that is likely to be embedded in a particular person’s ‘race’ or rather, cultural background (noting that ‘race’ is biologically a false and meaningless construct). Employers aim to minimise the time they spend to find a good candidate and will use a range of information to make their decisions easier.

    An employer looking to hire a receptionist in a typical Collins St. office is likely to preference a “young, white, blonde” woman, *other things being equal*. That is because of the stereotyping of this role over the past 100 years and also the possible preferences of well-heeled visitors to the reception. For the role of a chef in an Italian restaurant, there is likely to be a ‘racial’ preference for an Italian sounding name, and for a Chinese restaurant chef opening, a person with a Chinese name. For the role of a construction apprentice, for an Anglo Saxon or a Hungarian may be preferred on the assumption that the Anglo Saxon or Hungarian is likely to be of a slightly stronger build. For an IT opening, an Indian sounding name is likely to be preferred. And so on.

    No job advertisement can capture all the information about the employer’s needs. The tacit knowledge embedded in certain ‘stereotypes’ is a thus put to economic use by employer’s. Stereotyping also reduces risks and that is why it is so popular. I’d expect that the larger the organisation, the less the likelihood that it will resort to stereotypes, being more familiar with the wide distributions of traits among the various cultural (‘racial’) classes.

    Thus, it is a moot question to what extent this study demonstrates the presence of racism (where racism means blind hatred towards a particular group). Employers are not stupid. They are unlikely to hire the second best person for the heck of it, for that will cost them serious money. Therefore determinations about potential racism should be made after all tacit variables have been identified and controlled for.

    This is thus a rather complex matter. I haven’t (unfortunately) read the study but I assume some of these points have been made as part of its limitations.


  18. Frank Rizza says:

    To : Alison Booth, Andrew Leigh & Elena Varganova
    Re : Discrimination study

    G’day ,

    In a way i have to say thanks for the work you guys have done re : the “Discrimination study”
    Thanks , because it had to be done and given the results ( it only confirms what i been enduring for the past 30 plus years ) , and that those results demonstrate that we are in sorry state of affair ,and it’s about time that those moxi morons that discriminate against non English ( Anglo- Saxon ) names , grow up and get a life , and that goes as well for those Morons that think that discrimination in this country doesn’t happen.

    How about doing a study on how many people have changed their family names to an Anglo-Saxon sounding name , just to fit in ..


  19. ChrisPer says:

    Well Frank I just hope what you have been enduring doesn’t mean you have interpreted the results from a framing that could not see other than deliberate discrimination.

    The experimental design imitating the ‘found wallet’ experiments seems to me to be very likely to find a lightly held unconscious prejudice that formal non-discriminatory policies and business pactices can easily offset. Cialdini’s analysis of the ‘name similarity’ effect as an aspect an unconscious preference to assist similar others is very interesting, and its use as a tactic in phone sales is something I have noticed in recent times.

    I have to ask though, can you determine the strength of this effect compared with the critical factors in job hunting – as opposed to controlling for them? For instance, if your application shows a dynamic and effective track record that exactly matches the job description, does having a ‘foreign’ surname matter more than being a great value person? Could a migrant person’s diffident expectations be reinforced by your study in destructive and negative ways that ultimately do more harm than the mild preferences your experiment confirms? I recall having a letter to the editor published in BRW after they did an article about people having expectations of promotion disappointed, by implication because of race or immigrant background. The article constructed its own disappointments by failing to recognise that a person coming to the 1990s Australian business org chart (flat, meritocratic, rewarding success with broader project responsibility) may have expectations created in 1970s business cultures or third world countries (hierarchical organisations, status oriented, rewards usually formal promotion and job title elevation).

    Things change. Fear of prejudice limits success even in low-prejudice environments such as Australia aspires to be.

  20. Yobbo says:

    I have to say I am surprised that Chinese names found such a high level of discrimination.

    What kind of jobs were being applied for? I guess it makes a difference of the industry. I would expect Chinese names to be an advantage in areas like IT, Finance, Clerical etc, but a disadvantage in applying for a job in something more manual like construction or auto electrics.

    Even so I find it pretty surprising that Chinese get a rougher go than middle-eastern names, which if I had to guess would say would have had the most discrimination against them.

    Similarly I would have expected indigenous names to fare worse than they did, but I guess it has to be tempered by the fact that most indigenous people actually have anglo-celtic names anyway, so discrimination by name alone is probably not the major form of discrimination experienced by the indigenous.

    And as someone above posted, indigenous Australians are the only ethnic group to benefit from affirmative action policies, some companies may be actively seeking out indigenous employees to fill quotas.

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