Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bearers of foreign names less likely to find work in Sweden

Whenever I hear or read about unequal opportunities or discrimination on grounds of origin, Barack Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention comes to mind. In the speech Obama said, "...they would give me an African name, Barack, or 'blessed,' believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success." He called America a "magical place" where your name is no barrier to success. [Source] I wish the same could be said of European countries, but tales of discrimination and exclusion like the story of a foreign student in Sweden leave me with no doubt that European countries have a long way to go in terms of guaranteeing equal opportunities for all without discrimination on grounds of origin.

Discrimination is hard to prove. Due to the difficulties involved, many perpetrators go unpunished and many cases unreported. Consequently, some people in societies plagued by the social ill, mostly beneficiaries of discriminatory practices, overlook or downplay the prevalence of discrimination and naively think that victims of discrimination are simply lazy underachievers. Little do those not targeted by discrimination know that there is an invisible hand working against a certain group of people. Discrimination is a big problem in many societies around the world, including in so-called free and democratic societies in Europe. A CV experiment by a Romanian student in Uppsala, Sweden's fourth largest city located about 70 kilometers north of Stockholm supports this assertion.

Name change

After sending numerous job applications in Sweden with no positive outcome, a student from Romania decided to experiment. According to The Local, he changed his name on his CV to a "more Swedish" name after reportedly sending more than 200 CVs in Sweden and receiving no response. He printed 40 CVs in Swedish - not specifying his nationality. All 40 CVs contained the same information, but he used his real name in 20 of them and used a common Swedish name on the other 20. He sent the CVs to companies in Sweden and to a job recruitment agency.

All CVs with his real name went unanswered while 13 out of 20 CVs with a Swedish name landed interview offers. According to him the CVs with his real name got no interviews because employers saw a foreign name.

No coincidence

I love Sweden, but I can't defend it in this case. In my opinion, it's no coincidence that 20 CVs with a foreign name went unanswered while 13 out of 20 with a common Swedish name garnered interview offers. Results of the experiment show that a job seeker with a Swedish name is 13 times more likely to be invited for job interviews than an equally qualified job applicant with a foreign name.

The experience of the Romanian student in Uppsala represents the actual situation on the ground. According to a programme on Radio Sweden, there's lack of diversity in Swedish workforce and only 65 percent of foreign-born Swedes have jobs, compared to 80 percent among Swedish-born population. Based on the CV experiment, it is plausible to conclude names on CVs have something to do with the disparity.

Sweden is not alone. Discrimination prevails in labour markets in many countries around the world. Foreigners seeking employment in Sweden and other European countries can relate to the name-change experiment. In Finland for instance, unemployment among foreign nationals was 25.9 percent in late 2009 - more than double the unemployment rate among Finland's native-born population. Go figure.

Barrier to success

The CV name-change experiment tells me that in Sweden, a qualified Zuzeeko doesn't have equal opportunities in the labour market with a Johansson, Karlsson, Nilsson or Eriksson - simply because Zuzeeko is a foreign name. It suggests that a qualified job seeker with a foreign name ought to change his/her identity in order to easily find work or at least be invited for an interview. It's a shame that in a country like Sweden that promotes diversity and equal opportunities, people's chances of finding relevant work are limited by the names they bear. Perhaps Barack Obama, a "skinny kid with a funny name" would have had his hopes, dreams and aspirations shattered had he pursued them in Sweden or somewhere in Scandinavia or Europe - where your name is a barrier to success.

While the U.S. still has a lot of work to do in terms of equality and equal opportunities, the country is in my opinion way ahead of many - if not all - European countries. In the U.S., the son of a foreign student and bearer of an African name became 44th president. In Europe, the odds against someone with the same story and the same name are staggering. Perhaps Barack Obama was right when he said, "in no other country on earth" is his story possible. I would argue that Sweden and Europe as a whole have something to learn from America. Everyone should be given a fair shot to pursue dreams and contribute to society - without discrimination of any kind.

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