Victorian government trials blind job applications to overcome employer bias

Have you ever gone for a job and been tempted to anglicise your surname, remove your female pronoun or delete your birth date in case it cruels your chances?

For the first time in Australia, the Victorian government will trial removing personal details - such as name, gender, age and location - from job applications to rule out discrimination or unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias - when hidden beliefs or attitudes influence our behaviour - has long been a bugbear for those championing workplace diversity.

It's a very personal project for the Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Robin Scott. His wife, Shaojie, has a Chinese background but has occasionally used her anglicised name, Jade Scott, for job interviews. 

When she did there was a marked increase in responses to her applications, noted Mr Scott. 

"We're not talking about overt bigotry or racism; this is not people who are going to a Reclaim Australia rally," he said.

"This is a much more subtle process, where we make assumptions about people based on limited information." 

Talking to multicultural community groups about his wife's experience has confirmed how common it is, he said. "You just see all these heads nodding".

In an effort to tackle this bias, the 18-month Victorian trial will assess which personal details - including name, gender, age and location - should be removed during a job application process. 

Major government departments, agencies such as WorkSafe and Victoria Police, and private companies such as Westpac will take part on a voluntary basis, and Mr Scott said there were clear financial benefits for companies adopting the practice.

People from culturally diverse backgrounds with the same qualifications and experience often have to submit many more job applications, shows research from the Australian National University.

To get as many interviews as an applicant with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name, an Indigenous person must submit 35 per cent more applications, a Chinese person must submit 68 per cent more applications, an Italian person must submit 12 per cent more applications, and a Middle Eastern person 64 per cent more applications, it found. 

There are many creative ways that organisations try to get around "hiring bias". Researchers at Harvard and Princeton found "blind auditions", where musicians play from behind a screen, increased the likelihood female musicians would be hired by an orchestra by 25 to 45 percent.

Software exists that can comb through language used in job ads to alert employers if language is too gendered.

Research has found job listings for engineering and other male-dominated professions use masculine words such as "leader" and "competitive", while listing for female-dominated professions such as office admin or human resources did not. 

Greater executive and board diversity in companies results in equity returns more than 50 per cent higher and gross earnings 15 per cent higher than companies with lower diversity, according to the Diversity Council of Australia. 

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