Minister admits: ‘We have a serious discrimination problem’

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A new study has proven what many people in Norway already knew: Your chances of landing a good job in the country are dramatically lower if you don’t have a Norwegian name, and women still face challenges securing executive positions. The findings have upset, even embarrassed, top politicians who like to think Norway is an egalitarian country.

Audun Lysbakken, the government minister in charge of equality issues in Norway, called the job discrimination findings "dramatic." The poster behind him expounds on the virtues of equal opportunity. PHOTO: Sosialistisk Venstrepartiet, SV

“This tells me that we have a serious discrimination problem within Norwegian business,” said Audun Lysbakken, the government minister from the Socialist Left party (SV) in charge of equality, immigration and family issues.

It’s not only within the private sector, though, that discrimination exists. Another new study has shown how women still make up only a small percentage of top leadership positions at shareholder-owned companies in Norway, despite rules that 40 percent of their boards of directors must be women. That prompted criticism earlier this week from other government ministers, but then Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that  only three of those running Norway’s 37 wholly state-owned enterprises are women. On Wednesday, opposition politician Julie Brodtkorb of the Conservative Party demanded that the state “clean up its own house” before criticizing hiring practices within business.

If your name happens to be Rashid instead of Hansen, though, the problem is simply being called in for a job interview, much less being considered for leadership roles. Even people born, reared and educated in Norway, and speaking fluent Norwegian, have a much lower chance of getting to the interview stage than their counterparts with Nowegian names, even when their qualifications are identical.

The study, conducted for Lysbakken’s ministry by research organization Fafo and state research institute ISF (Institutt for sammfunnsforskning), used methods they hadn’t used before: 1,800 fictional job applications were sent in response to current “help wanted” ads in various branches of Norwegian business. The fictional candidates had identical educational and professional qualifications. The only difference on their job applications was their names.

Results showed that the foreign names reduced the applicants’ probability of being called in for an interview by 25 percent. “In principle, it was only the name that separated the two applications for the same job,” Arnfinn H Midtbøen of ISF told newspaper Dagsavisen. “Even so, we see a considerable difference in how the applications were handled.”

Many job applicants with foreign names in Norway don’t even get a response to their job applications. It’s not unusual for immigrants in Norway to send out literally hundreds of job applications before they’re finally hired, but that’s often blamed on lack of proficiency in the Norwegian language. In this case, the applicants had grown up with the language just like ethnic Norwegians. In a curious twist, men with foreign names had an even harder time getting called in for interviews than women with foreign names. Researchers suspect employers viewed men with foreign names more fearfully than women, based on a long history of what’s called fremmedfrykt in Norway, literally “fear of foreigners.”

No surprise for minority applicants
Concrete examples of the problem began emerging in the Norwegian media immediately. Sangeetha Subas, age 26, grew up in Norway with parents from Sri Lanka. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Oslo in health care economics and leadership in 2000 and started applying for jobs. After 50 rejections, she began to lose hope. It took more than half a year to be called in for her first interview, for a secretarial job in the northern city of Hammerfest.

“I was over-qualified, but had to take it, I had to start somewhere,” Subas told Dagsavisen. She eventually moved back to Oslo, hoping for better opportunities after she’d had some work experience. Many applications went unanswered. She finally landed a consulting position at Oslo University Hospital and has since had other two other job offers. “It just shows how important it is to get a chance to come in for an interview,” she said, noting that some of her ethnic Norwegian friends also were slow to get jobs. “You have to be careful about blaming it on discrimination … but those of us with minority background just have to accept that we have to be persistent and work harder.”

Discriminatory hiring practices, though, “challenge fundamental ideals of equality in Norwegian society, and are worth taking seriously,” researcher Midtbøen told Dagsavisen. Minister Lysbakken claims he’s doing so.

“The report shows we can put the question of whether we have a discrimination problem behind us, and concentrate instead on what we can do about it,” said Lysbakken, who said the study’s “dramatic” results made him “angry and worried.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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