Job racism in Sweden and Europe

1. I applied for a job as a “Data scientist and GIS specialist” in Sweden. The job was located in a “peace and development” department. So the job title, and the job focus, were pretty much the summary of my PhD, which I had just finished. I sent my application in to SIPRI (Swedish International Peace Research Institute) and … never heard back. At all, ever. About six months after that, I discovered something interesting. In Sweden, you can email the person you sent your application to, and you can demand that they tell you the prior experience and education level of the person they did pick for the job. Interestingly, the reason for this avenue of information is to clamp down on job discrimination based on race, religion, gender, or how un-Swedish your name is. Well, buddies, nice try, but it ain’t working. Like, if I knew that the job applicants I reject can ask for that information, I would make sure to treat all the applications equally. SIPRI did not. I sent them an email demanding the information. And this is what I found out. That among their top 4 applicants (these were the ones who landed an in-person interview) was someone with two years of experience and a master’s degree. To reiterate, in my application, I had 10 years of experience and a PhD. But they chose this other person for the interview, who I imagine was little miss blondie, all eager to do good in the world, and they thought she was all super cute and everything, and that she would fit in really well. So they interviewed her, in-person, and they had three other applicants they also interviewed in-person, none of whom had as much experience as me. The person they chose for the job had a PhD and 8 years of experience. Again, I had 10. And what made me even more mad was that they pulled those 4 people for in-person interviews out of a larger group of 11 candidates. Those 11 candidates all had Skype interviews. So if little miss blondie with the masters degree and two puny years of experience made it all the way to the in-person interview, I just want to know (I didn’t get this information) what were the worthless qualifications of all 11 candidates who got a Skype interview? Upon finding all this out, that was the last time I ever applied to a job in Sweden. And I’m the one who wrote this, and made this video, and this video, and wished desperately for this. And do you know what hurts even more? There’s this old man who was friends with my childhood hero, Kofi Annan, who is the head of SIPRI. Or he is somewhere in the top leadership. I think this is a situation of the buck stops at the top, so I had this experience at the hands of someone I’ve looked up to for almost two decades. By the way, no Swedish language skills were wanted for the job, they just wanted someone with superior English skills. I don’t care how good the Swedes think they are at English, I’m still better than them.

2. Now, what I described above might just be one situation, but now look at this study which involved 200 000 applications. The professor running the study would send out two fake resumes to employers. The resumes were very similar, but one was fronted by a “White” name, the other with a name that indicated a non-White immigrant, or a Black person. Then, despite the resumes being similar, was the employer still more likely to contact the “White” candidate? Well, of course. But what’s even sadder is they did this experiment in 9 countries, and Sweden was one of the two worst in terms of throwing out non-White applicants automatically. I had seen studies like this before, but I always tried to turn a blind eye to them … and I was always making excuses for Sweden … and I always thought when it came to Sweden, there must be a good explanation. And then it happened to me.

3. I applied to an internship — yes, an internship — in the summer after I graduated with my PhD. Yes, it’s a crazy world. You’d think that by the time you have a PhD you’d be beyond internships, but no. It was an internship in Sweden (here we go again!) and actually, I applied right at the time I was applying to SIPRI (first bullet above). This second application was to a place called EAT Forum which does research on environmental impacts of growing food. The internship I applied to was in science communication. I got an interview — so that was good — except they knew I was in the US, and totally ignored the time zones, and set the Skype interview at a time that was comfortable for them, but where I had to get up at 4 am in order to get ready. And I didn’t want to say anything to them about rescheduling, because, you know, I didn’t want to seem difficult. Even though, after the pre-sunrise interview, due to my disrupted sleep, I was neither awake nor asleep — neither dead nor alive — for the rest of the day. I couldn’t do a thing, so I just lay in bed all afternoon and stared at the ceiling, with a headache, unable to get up, and unable to fall asleep. On top of all that, of course I didn’t get the internship — which in my crazy stupidity was all I wanted, yes, please, an internship to go with my PhD degree, just as long as it gets me to Sweden. Now, I am not accusing anyone of discrimination here — I didn’t do that great during the interview (since I was half ASLEEP) and I do believe that another candidate had the better set of skills specific to what they wanted. But what does make me mad is stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. I know a girl who’s half Swedish, half American — and all nice and blonde, and she has the right name and everything — and she got an internship with one of these science organizations in Stockholm upon graduating … with her undergraduate degree. Yeah, that was all it took for her. An undergraduate degree. But I had a PhD, and I didn’t get anything.

5. Now let’s look at clues from the general environment of things. There’s an organization in Sweden called FORSKOM, that’s short for Forskning and Kommunication, or something like that — that means research and communication. In short, it’s like a professional group of science communicators, all supporting each other. Just you look at the names of the group leadership … as if someone like me, with my name, and with my experiences of being pushed away from Sweden, would ever, ever see my name fit in with the ones there. They’ve made room, as is typical, for the one British guy to give a regal touch, and that’s it. I’ve met some of the people of this group at conferences. They’re all super unreliable.

6. Now let’s look at some other organizations in the rest of Europe, for example, a place called EJR-Quartz. I applied for a job here, and I still don’t know what the EJR is supposed to stand for. But this organization works closely with the European Space Agency, satellites and all that my PhD research dealt with. My job application process with EJR-Quartz was totally fine — I didn’t end up getting the job, but it was probably my fault, and I did at least advance to an interview. This was a few years ago now and I have no complaints when I remember back. But what did give me a little pause was when I went to investigate their Twitter account to prepare for my interview. It was all White people, top to bottom, back then (and it still is today!) Please, how much would they really want me around? And when I do and think and say things a little differently from what they’re used to, what would they say? I especially remember, that main Twitter account led me to some Twitter accounts of the people working there, so I clicked around here and there. And I found a photo — from a work event, mind you, like at some sort of satellite conference — of an old man — the head of the organization, or something — standing with a young female employee right in front of him. She was tiny, her face only coming up to his collar, and they both had huge smiles on their faces, and his arm was stretched forward and embracing her from behind, going right across her chest. It was a weird photo from the gender perspective, for sure — but you know, maybe they’re both fine with it, so whatever. But I saw that and thought — yeah, there’s no way all that hugging and smiling and camaraderie would extend to me if I got the job and ended up working there. Like, you get to a point where you have too many experiences, and you know at a glance where you’ll be the odd one out.

7. At the very beginning of this year — pre-COVID, so ancient times — I saw a message that a European Union project called Food Unfolded was “looking to expand its editorial and contributor team”. I thought, sure, I could use some extra money and write about science stuff for them, why not. And it was about food waste, so there’s lots of environmental themes. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time preparing my material, but I did put together a portfolio and CV and sent it to them. But the thing was, by that time, I’d already had so many mysterious silences when sending job applications to Europe, I already knew to expect my material to be thrown out at the first glance. And I was right — I never heard back. I suppose the sight of my name had them clutching their pearls.



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