When discrimination became a fact

"The study was a game changer which showed that discrimination in working life exists", says researcher Arnfinn H. Midtbøen. But the fictitious job applications that had to be made raised some ethical issues.

Cover of The Research Ethics Magazine no. 2, 2020. Man holding pipette in lab
2020-2 During its 30-year long history, The Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees have dealt with hundreds of cases. For this edition we asked past and present leaders which issues they think have been particularly interesting or important. This article describes one of them.

Translated by Aisha Bibi

Does it matter whether your name is Kamran or Andreas when you apply for a job in Norway? Yes, if you have a foreign name, the chances of you getting called in for an interview decreases by 25 %. Men are discriminated against more than women, and discrimination occurs more frequently in the private sector than in the public sector.

Midtbøen and colleague Jon Rogstad at the Institute for Social Research established this in a study from 2012.

At the press conference where the results were presented, the Minister for Children, Gender Equality and Inclusion, Audun Lysbakken stated that he was angry and concerned over what he referred to as “the quota of real life” (“virkelighetens kvotering”).

"The report shows that we can leave behind the question of whether we have a problem with discrimination, and rather concentrate on what we can do about it", he stated according to the Norwegian national broadcaster NRK.

Could consent give way?

The researchers had achieved what they hoped for: Contributing important results in an area where Norway lacked knowledge, using what was considered the best method in this field of research. For Midtbøen, who at the time was new to the job as a researcher, the way to the goal was both “very long” and “extremely educational”.

The researchers realized early in the process that what they were planning involved many ethical dilemmas. They asked the National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH) for advice.

"The main question was whether the requirement for informed consent was mandatory for the research in question. This created major discussions", says Helene Ingierd, who was director for NESH when the case was processed in 2008/2009.

Feared offended participants

To map discrimination the researchers wanted to submit fictitious applications to several vacancies, i.e. a kind of covert research with employers as ignorant participants.

The applicants were supposed to have the exact same qualifications, with education and work experience from Norway. The applications were written in flawless Norwegian. Only their ethnic background was supposed to separate the applicants: Norwegian versus Pakistani.

To gain more insight into attitudes versus actual actions, the researchers also wanted to do interviews with employers afterwards.

Midtbøen and Rogstad thought the experiment itself would be the ethical bend, but it was the planned interviews that created the biggest discussions in NESH: Being misled could in general be seen as offensive by the unsuspecting participants. For those who had discriminated the job seekers, it would be extra stressful to be confronted in an interview, some feared.

"NESH was also worried that such methods in the long run could damage the trust in research", Ingierd explains.

Successful interviews

NESH invited the researchers to several meetings, and Midtbøen and Rogstad even wrote a report about the methodical challenges and the research ethical dilemmas.

In the end, NESH concluded that the possible societal significance was so compelling that the study should be conducted. One of the preconditions was that the researchers received explicit consent from the employers when it came to the interviews.

"Before the interviews I was very nervous. I wanted to be as non-confrontational and as curious and open as possible. Fortunately, no one was angry or frustrated, and we had very interesting conversations", says Midtbøen.

He spoke to 42 employers, of whom some had discriminated against applicants and some had not. It turned out that many associated foreign names with stereotypes associated with immigrants, such as poor language skills and negative attitudes towards women.

– This weakens the chances in the job market, also for Norwegians with immigrant parents, which is the group the experiment revealed to be discriminated against, Midtbøen emphasizes.

Sign of structural racism?

However, he believes it was not individuals but systems that played the crucial role. The way employment processes are regulated defines the scope for discrimination.

Processes with little transparency, quick decisions and where the manager has sole responsibility, seem to result in discrimination far more often than in processes with a high degree of transparency, where justification is recorded, and where the person making the decision is held accountable.

"How do these findings then fit into the debate on structural racism in Norway today?"

"Occasionally, our study is used as evidence for the existence of structural racism. We chose not to interpret the findings in that direction. The variations in the incidence of discrimination were too great, including between the type of position, sector, and size of the company, for one broad theory to capture the nuances. But that does not mean that systemic explanations for discrimination are irrelevant, on the contrary", Midtbøen emphasizes.

He also says, after the study was published in 2012, all relevant reports to the Norwegian Parliament and Official Norwegian Reports (NOUs) assume that work life discrimination exists.

"NESH did a very thorough and good job that increased our research ethics awareness, but they did not put their foot down. That decision enabled what became an extremely important study", he concludes.