Listen to this article
When Kayo Anosike embarked on a career change, she studied for a masters degree in business psychology at the University of Westminster. She then sent out her CV to prospective employers — and heard nothing.
When Kayla Benjamin lost her job and retrained for a new career in the corporate world, she, too, did a masters in business psychology at the same university. A mere 10 days after sending out her CV, she secured a new job.
Kayla was delighted, relieved and mildly shocked. Kayo felt exactly the same way — because they were, and are, one and the same person.
It was only when Kayo Anosike chose Kayla Benjamin as her alter ego that she managed to get a foot in the door. “All my friends said to me that if I got to the interview stage, [employers] would see I was the right person,” she says.
The tactic was so successful that a few months later she tried it again. “Because it had worked for me the first time, when my first contract ended I thought, this is my new professional employment history.”
When Ms Benjamin, the name she has retained for her professional life, sent out her CV again, she was “inundated with interviews — the combination of my masters and my new name was working”. Even though she was unsuccessful for most of the jobs she applied for, “at least I was being given a fair shot”.
The issue of names that “sound ethnic” was identified by David Cameron in his October 2015 speech to the Conservative party conference. Name bias meant “the disappointment of not getting your first choice of university place”, the prime minister said.
“It’s being passed over for promotion and not knowing why; it’s organisations that recruit in their own image and aren’t confident enough to do something different, like employing a disabled person or a young black man or woman.”
Name bias is on the political and business agenda. This year the Cabinet Office announced name-blind recruitment processes for the National Health Service and Civil Service by 2020. A host of organisations, including the BBC, Deloitte, HSBC, KPMG and Teach First, is following suit.
“By removing the candidate’s name and other personal information, such as their nationality or the university they attended, we aim to ensure that people will be judged on merit and not on their background, race or gender,” says John Manzoni, head of the civil service.
Studies have pointed to recruitment problems for applicants with “non-white” names, though most acknowledge that this is far from the only barrier to employment. A 2009 study carried out by the National Centre for Social Research on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions found “white” sounding people needed to send nine written job applications to get a callback for interview. The figure rose to 16 from ethnic minority applicants.
One troubling aspect, says Biju Menon, founder of a “name-blind” headhunting platform called Nottx, is that it is difficult to know if you have been on the receiving end of unconscious bias. But when you are repeatedly ignored for jobs for which you are qualified, he adds, the suspicion grows that your name is holding you back.
“We don’t have a clear [transparent] process of recruitment so I wanted to create that process . . . It is common sense to take the name and the gender out of the equation and not have that unconscious mindset [come into play].”
After an email survey of its members, Nottx found almost a quarter of female clients in the UK with “non-white” sounding names had adopted a pseudonym because they thought it would help their job prospects, though only 10 per cent of men had done the same. In the US, the figure among Nottx candidates was 17 per cent but the spread among men and women was more even.
Aia Alkhudair has experienced her own version of the problem. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, she has a Canadian university degree, pale skin, red hair and an Arab name. Despite being educated to masters level, she has spent two years failing to find a job that matches her qualifications and is convinced her name is the reason. “Recruiters look at names on a CV and disregard skills and experience,” she says. “They automatically think a person with an ethnic name is unable to speak English or cannot be a team player.”
The problem goes deeper than the “colour” of a name, however. In 2005 Raphael Mokades set up Rare Recruitment, an agency for ethnic minority graduates, with the aim of matching the best candidates to jobs in leading law firms, banks and other companies.
He found that the interview stage raised problems concerning the social and ethnic differences between interviewer and interviewee, suggesting that removing names and other information from applications worked only up to a point. A recruiter’s subconscious assumptions based on body language and speech, for example, created similar issues to the problem of names.
“[Recruitment] is a battle between someone who ticks the boxes for academic achievement, extra curricular interests and work experience but may not have the Duke of Edinburgh awards and the hedge fund internship,” he says. “There are barriers of confidence and fluency, of social and cultural capital — and there are penalties for people who are different.”