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A changing Saudi Arabia needs workplace diversity

  • Published at 03:47 pm January 1st, 2020
Photo: Bigstock

And Bangladesh needs to continue to encourage it as well

Saudi Arabia’s tribal and family networks have traditionally identified and trained certain male heirs to succeed from their fathers, which has served a useful purpose in preserving and enhancing skills and behaviours in the workplace.

But today, as the Kingdom undergoes unprecedented social change, with more women seeking jobs and a demographic youth bulge entering the workforce, big employers have a powerful new incentive to attract previously ignored sections of the working-age population.

But how can we check whether employers are moving with the times, and opening their recruitment drives to previously ignored talent pools, whether from non-traditional family groups or women?

A recent University of Pennsylvania study proposes a novel method for addressing promoting diversity that merits attention.

Identifying hiring biases by asking employers directly suffers from two drawbacks. First, employers might not take the time to give precise answers, as the questions are hypothetical and they are busy running their own businesses. Second, they may be reluctant to reveal illegal practices, such as biases against women.

Economists use “audit studies” to address these problems: They respond to employers’ job postings with fake resumes, and monitor how often these fake resumes earn interview requests. By modifying the characteristics of the fake applicant, such as their experience, their education, and information that implicitly reveals their gender or minority status, researchers can infer the impact of these factors on job market success.

Marianne Bertrand (University of Chicago) and Sendhil Mullainathan (Harvard University) conducted a famous audit study by varying the applicant’s name. They found that in the US, white-sounding names, such as Emily and Greg, were 50% more likely to elicit a callback than black-sounding names, such as Lakisha and Jamal. In principle, Saudi-based researchers could use this method to evaluate the importance of having a degree from an elite university such as the King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals, and to assess the extent of discrimination against women.

In the University of Pennsylvania study, Judd Kessler, Corinne Low, and Colin Sullivan refined the traditional technique for two reasons. First, audit studies are ethically questionable, since they involve employers wasting their time evaluating fake resumes and pursuing non-existent candidates. Second, it results in a limited measure of job-market success, which is the likelihood of an employer callback. Employers might refrain from calling an attractive candidate as they expect the candidate to reject them, potentially for a better offer.

The alternative proposed by Kessler and his colleagues is “incentivized resume rating.” They collect a large pool of real resumes and make simple modifications to create an analogous collection of fake resumes. Employers are then knowingly presented with these fake resumes, getting around the ethical issue of deceiving employers, and are asked to provide two pieces of information for each resume.

First, on a scale of one to 10, if you knew that this hypothetical person would accept your offer, what is your level of interest in presenting them with an offer?

Second, if you did make them an offer, how likely do you think that they are to accept it?

In the case of women in Saudi Arabia, this latter question is very important, as it helps us understand if employers are less likely to make offers to women because they think that the women are less likely to accept, vis-à-vis simply regarding the female candidates as unsuitable for the job. Each explanation warrants a different solution, and so policy-makers need accurate data to determine the correct course of action.

How did Kessler and his colleagues ensure that employers were motivated to provide accurate responses, rather than giving casual answers or cursory glances at each resume? The employers were told that they would be given real resumes that match the characteristics of the fake resumes that they favoured. As any human resources employee would attest, filtering and evaluating resumes is time-consuming and expensive, especially when unemployment is high and a single job-posting can attract hundreds of resumes. Having a third party present you with filtered, tailored resumes is valuable, so it is worth taking the time to convey your preferences accurately.

This technique allowed the economists to infer the presence of some discrimination against women and minorities in the US in the areas of science, engineering, and mathematics, though overall, employers seemed to embrace diversity.

Saudi Arabia is well-positioned to conduct analogous studies that yield insights suitable for the local labour market. Taqat is a centralized job-matching service provided by the government, and it can easily be modified for this research aim. The results should be analyzed by labour economists, the private sector, and educators, who could use the outcomes to propose educational and labour market reforms to ensure that all talent gets a chance.

Making a success of the reforms outlined by the Vision 2030 will require improved performance by Saudi workers and improved diversity is broadly recognized as a key driver of efficiency and effectiveness, particularly in public service.

Omar Al-Ubaydli is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain. This article first appeared in the English version of Al Arabiya and has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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