In amongst the details of this week’s government announcements on social mobility was a commitment to extend name-blank employment, a long-term campaign of Liberal Democrat MP and now Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone.
As Lynne explained in a newspaper column back in 2009 the logic is this – blanking out names on job applications would remove subconscious discrimination at a key stage in the job application process. Discrimination at later stages could of course still occur, but if subconscious decisions are being made based on people’s names before they even get the chance to get into a room and impress in an interview, an environment in which subconscious discrimination may be less likely to happen due to the other decision-making cues available, then this could be a significant step forward.
But this isn’t just theory. The government’s initial research, as mocked by the Mail on Sunday, tried out sending otherwise equal job applications in response to different vacancies but altering the names between male and female sounding ones and between those that sounded like ethnic minority names and those that don’t. The result? Discrimination was indeed found to be taking place simply on the basis of names.
As Lynne’s newspaper article concluded:
Then the Mail on Sunday gets the wrong end of the stick and blasts the Government for carrying out this research. Well excuse me – but research to see if a change in the law is required sounds pretty sensible to me – especially on an issue as important as discrimination in employment practices. The Mail quoted various grumpy employers not liking the idea that research is being done to check whether discrimination is taking place – but if that’s the case they shouldn’t have anything to fear from the research. And a smart employer would also know the depth of scientific research that already exists into the myriad of subtle ways that biases and discrimination can creep into human decision-making processes – as seen in bestselling books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.
Blimey – this is a proposal that actually won’t cost business any money and might drastically improve the situation for applicants for jobs – bringing fairness and equality – and still they moan.
So what’s in a name? Quite a lot!
Now in this week’s social mobility strategy the government has committed itself to “increased use of name-blank and school-blank applications where appropriate”. Some parts of the private sector have already adopted such practices (because, of course, firms themselves lose out if they fail to employ the best staff because of applications being rejected on spurious grounds) and if the public sector also adapts this change across the board there could be a gradual, quiet and often not noticed opening up of employment opportunities for all sorts of people.
It may not produce any future dramatic headlines, but the impact could well be greater than dozens of the would-be headline grabbing initiatives that come out of government every week.
The party itself is also making a step in the right direction with the decision that as from Tuesday all advertisements for internships are name and school blind, and they also will be paid.
As for the rest of the social mobility announcements, more on those later.