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Are people with foreign names discriminated against?
An experiment with fictional girls who wanted to play football yields some answers that might surprise you.
Sports are a way in for people who want to build contacts with other people. Sports give you an opportunity to integrate and interact with people on an equal footing. For immigrants, sports can be the key that allows them to fit into a society.
But how easy is it for people with foreign names to join in the fun?
That depends on how foreign-sounding a name is and perhaps where they live. The results from the experiment show that it's not the same throughout Scandinavia. Some are more similar than others.
The rigged football experiment actually shows encouraging results for Norway and Denmark. But not for Sweden.
Fictional football girls applied for tryouts
In the experiment, the researchers pretended to be girls who wanted to try out for football clubs in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
“We contacted every division-based women’s club with amateur teams in Scandinavia, apart from the top level,” Tor Georg Jakobsen says. He is a professor of political science at NTNU Business School.
The researchers sent emails under fictitious names to contact persons from a total of 1,141 football clubs. This included 665 clubs in Sweden, 259 in Norway, and 207 in Denmark.
The emails were identical, but the researchers varied them by signing some with traditional native names and others with random names from the three largest measurable minority groups in each country.
The researchers then checked the responses they received – or didn’t receive – and noted how they differed depending on what kind of name the fictional girls had.
What we say and what we do
“What we measured was the proportion of positive responses, where girls would be invited for tryouts,” Jakobsen says.
Few football contacts were directly negative when they responded to the inquiry. Perhaps that is typical for Scandinavians. However, quite a few club contacts simply failed to respond. The researchers categorised this as a lack of a positive response.
“This method is an ingenious way of measuring ‘incorrect’ opinions. Failing to respond to an email doesn’t entail any risk for the contact. But by analysing this information, we can discern tendencies that we otherwise only find in elections, and not in surveys,” Jakobsen says.
What people say and what they do are not always the same.
Swedes discriminated the most
“Sweden is the most interesting country and had relatively clear findings,” Jakobsen says.
Here, the researchers found a much clearer tendency towards discrimination compared to Norway and Denmark.
The trend in Sweden was clear. Native Swedish names had a positive response rate of around 77 per cent, Finnish names around 73 per cent, Polish names 65 per cent, and Iraqi names 62 per cent. This corresponds to what researchers call cultural distance, which means how different the cultures are considered to be.
“The difference between Swedish and Finnish names isn’t significant, but it is for Polish and Iraqi names,” Jakobsen says.
The researchers did not find this clear tendency in either Norway or Denmark.
In Norway, Polish and Lithuanian names did receive somewhat less frequent responses than Norwegian ones, but the difference was not significant. For Somali names, the response rate was almost identical to Norwegian names.
In Denmark, Polish, Syrian, and Turkish names received somewhat less frequent responses than Danish names, but again, the difference was not significant. German names should have been included for Denmark since Germans are the second-largest immigrant group. However, German names were excluded because they are too similar to Danish names.
No reason to gloat
“It’s a paradox that Sweden sometimes scores significantly higher than Denmark and Norway in large surveys when it comes to trusting people of other nationalities,” Jakobsen says.
When people are directly asked, it appears that in Norway and Denmark, we are somewhat more sceptical of foreigners than people in Sweden are. But that’s where theory and practice diverge.
However, we shouldn't gloat too much about the double standards of the Swedes either. Because it's not necessarily fair.
“We should also mention that Sweden has many more football clubs than Denmark and Norway,” Jakobsen says.
As the number of clubs increases, the chance of coincidence influencing the results also decreases. For example, it only takes a few desperate coaches in Norway and Denmark for the numbers to change. Filling up the team at almost any cost will convince even the most sceptical coach to answer yes to allowing someone with a foreign-sounding name to try out.
Perhaps foreign-sounding names have a more exotic ring to some. Maybe the names indicate football traditions and a corresponding skillset, making it more exciting to say yes.
Sweden also has a much larger proportion of immigrants and children of immigrants compared to Norway and Denmark. In Sweden, the proportion is 20 per cent, compared to 14 per cent in Norway, and 12 per cent in Denmark.
Easier for girls?
Similar experiments have shown that boys who want to try out generally have a lower chance of being allowed to if they have foreign-sounding names.
But the response is not as clear for girls.
“The Scandinavian countries are ideal for this type of research. Most European countries don’t have enough women’s teams for empirical analysis,” Cornel Nesseler says. He is affiliated with the NTNU Business School and is an associate professor at the University of Stavanger.
Nesseler has previously conducted similar studies on male players.
He explains that girls with foreign-sounding names receive responses more often. Therefore, they also receive positive responses more often than boys did in the other experiments.
In other words, it could appear that, on average, the football contacts are more positive towards girls than boys. However, the experiments are different enough that we cannot say for certain.
“The demand for female players is probably much higher compared to men, which can also affect the response rate,” Nesseler says.
Storm et al. Ethnic Discrimination in Scandinavia: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Women’s Amateur Soccer, Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, vol. 10, 2023. DOI: 10.1057/s41599-023-01734-7
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