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Breaking the Leadership Glass Ceiling for Ethnic Minorities

Evidence from over 12,000 job applications.

Key points

  • In recent research, applicants with English names received 26.8% of positive responses for leadership roles. Non-English names received 11.3%.
  • Applicants with English names received 21.2% of positive responses for non-leadership positions, while non-English names received 11.6%.
  • The findings suggest that a re-engineering of the recruitment process is needed.

Many business and political leaders are White individuals with English names. This raises the question: Is there a glass ceiling for ethnic minorities? To answer this question, we conducted one of the largest international discrimination studies. We submitted over 12,000 job applications in response to more than 4,000 job advertisements. This study focused on name and ethnic discrimination during the recruitment process for leadership positions.

The business case argument suggests that the economy loses millions of dollars each year as organizations fail to select the best-suited employees for leadership roles, relegating ethnic minorities to positions below their qualifications. Furthermore, discrimination in leadership positions not only undermines social cohesion in a society but also violates anti-discrimination laws and equal opportunity principles.

In our study, we examined six distinct ethnic groups by modifying the names on otherwise identical resumes to reflect Arabic, Australian Aboriginal, Chinese, English, Greek, and Indian backgrounds. The applications targeted jobs advertised in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, across 12 different occupations.

Our research is the first resume study to include leadership roles (such as management, team leader, and frontline leader positions) in its investigation of ethnic discrimination. Resume studies involve responding to real job advertisements using nearly identical resumes for fictional candidates, with names altered to represent different ethnic groups.

Our findings reveal a higher degree of ethnic discrimination during the recruitment process for leadership positions, providing new evidence of a glass ceiling for ethnic minorities in Australia.

For leadership roles, applicants with English names received 26.8% positive responses, while those with non-English names received 11.3% positive responses.

For non-leadership roles, applicants with English names received 21.2% positive responses, while those with non-English names received 11.6% positive responses.

These results suggest that recruiters are more likely to perceive applicants with English names as potential leaders, while they are less likely to view ethnic minorities as prototypical leaders.

Ethnic discrimination for leadership positions was higher when the advertised jobs required customer contact. For these customer-oriented jobs, job applicants with English names received 30.6 percent of positive responses for their job applications, while applicants with non-English names received 11.1 percent of positive responses.

The customer contact finding suggests that recruiters may think that customers expect and prefer to deal with a “prototypical” leader, which may manifest in more hiring discrimination against ethnic minorities.

In contrast, ethnic discrimination in recruitment was not influenced by the city, the sex of job applicants, and whether the job advertisement emphasized learning, creativity, and innovation.

The ethnic discrimination findings are particularly striking because the resumes in our studies indicate that the ethnic minority applicants in our study were educated and have worked in Australia. This provides strong evidence that the reported hiring discrimination is caused by the name and not by visa issues or a lack of language skills or local experience.

To tackle the discrimination issue, organisations could try using anonymous job applications, in which the applicants’ names are hidden in the initial recruitment phase.

Further, it might be important to improve the training of recruiters to reduce ethnic discrimination in the recruitment of leadership positions. This could help recruiters become aware of potential stereotypes. Relatedly, organisations can implement diversity management and inclusion practices to support the recruitment and promotion of ethnic minority employees and leaders.

Finally, organisations can try to develop leadership development programs for ethnic minority employees.

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