Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Any talk of discrimination is usually rooted in a conversation about racism – it’s the idea that there are people with prejudices that are actively and knowingly making harmful decisions based on race. But the truth is that discrimination exists on a spectrum: even well-meaning people who don’t identify as racists can unconsciously discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity.

When it comes to revealing the extent of unconscious bias in Canada, we have a few telling studies we can turn to. In 2009, Philip Oreopoulos, an economics professor at UBC at the time, sent thousands of resumes across Toronto. The resumes were largely similar; the main variable was the applicant’s name. Some resumes bore English-sound names (Greg, John, Matthew… Alison, Carrie, Emily…) while others bore popular names from China, India and Pakistan.

The purpose of the study was to measure whether applicants with foreign-sounding names with comparable education and experience were afforded equal opportunities. After all, if job competitions are a truly a merit-based process, then we should expect equal outcomes.

The data, however, revealed that having an English-sounding name yielded more opportunities:

Interview request rates for English-named applicants with Canadian education and experience were more than three times higher compared to resumes with Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani names with foreign education and experience (5 percent versus 16 percent) but were no different compared to foreign applicants from Britain.

In addition, the study revealed that among the “foreign” applicants with 4 to 6 years of Canadian experience, those who were educated in Canada fared no better than their counterparts educated abroad.

In 2012, Oreopoulos, now with the University of Toronto, repeated the study. This time, resumes were sent to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Combining all three cities, resumes with English-sounding names are 35 percent more likely to receive callbacks than resumes with Indian or Chinese names. This is remarkably consistent with earlier findings from Oreopoulos (2009) for Toronto in better economic circumstances.

When approached, recruiters contended that they “often treat a name as a signal that an applicant may lack critical language or social skills for the job”. But this contradicted the researchers’ findings. Employers, they concluded, are unwittingly engaging in discrimination by overemphasizing language skill concerns, based on an applicant’s name, despite what’s listed on the resume.

Unfortunately, this means that in a world where Alison and Min apply for the same job with the same level of education and experience, Alison is likely to get more callbacks based on her name alone.

Most pernicious of all, this form of discrimination has a cumulative effect. According to Canada Research Chairs, “decisions made based on unconscious bias can compound over time to significantly impact the lives and opportunities of others who are affected by the decisions we make.”

They point to the following computer simulation, which shows the effect of a one per-cent bias over time: “ultimately the representation of each colour drastically changed as a result of this unconscious bias.”

After 8 rounds of bias, orange representation was reduced by 18%.

In other words, years down the road, Alison has the potential to be much further in her career than Min because of the greater number of opportunities afforded to her, largely due to her English-sounding name.

Recently, the federal government announced a pilot project to test the effect of blind-name resumes. The idea was to remove race and ethnicity identifiers in an effort to curb unconscious bias in the hiring process. When the results of the pilot project were announced, the data seemed to show that there was no unconscious bias at work in the federal public service. A CBC headline read: “No sign of bias against government job-seekers with ethnic-sounding names, pilot project finds”.

Visible minorities were short-listed at roughly the same rate through a name-blind recruitment process (46 per cent) as through a traditional process (47 per cent).

But while the government was happy to pat itself on the back and proclaim that visible minorities fared just as well without a name-blind process, experts pointed to methodological flaws in the government’s pilot project.

Oreopoulos co-authored a response to the government findings, noting that the project was not designed to test discrimination. The government’s position, according to the authors, “significantly misrepresents the actual findings.” For one, the study relied on departments to volunteer for the study and restricted which postings were part of the project. Also, the hiring managers who took part in the projects were aware that they were part of the study, thereby making it likelier that they would consciously make decisions to avoid engaging in unconscious discrimination.

Unconscious bias has repercussions that go beyond the hiring process. Other studies have revealed its effects in policing, where lethal force is more frequently used against black people, and in medicine, where black patients often receive less pain medication than their white counterparts for similar ailments.

The first step in addressing unconscious bias is recognizing that it exists and that it leads to unequal treatment, unequal opportunities and unequal results in a society that considers itself a meritocracy. We tell ourselves that anyone with ambition, skills and abilities can reach their full potential, but discrimination in all its forms undermines this societal aim.