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I want to apply to a postdoc position at a UK based University.

They want me to fill a "Equal Opportunities Data" form with questions about my marital status, sexual orientation, religion and race. Why do they need that? Will there be any consequences from not specifying these?

Will the employing professor have access to the data?

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    I think you are allowed to not specify these, if you so wish. I was also applying to some UK positions recently and it was never obligatory. – Ana Oct 28 '14 at 13:38
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    I'm pretty sure that they must also give you an explanation of: 1) Who will read that data 2) When they will be allowed to read the data 3) Who is responsible for the privacy of the data 4) A guarantee that they are using at least the minimum security measure to protect your data as defined by law. Read carefully those points, or request them. – Bakuriu Oct 28 '14 at 16:02
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    @AE Note that the link you posted clarifies that you can do that only if the person with the "protected characteristic" is as qualified as other applicants. In other words, given equally capable applicants you can choose the one with a protected characteristic over the others for that reason. You can not choose one such person if someone else is more suitable to the job. And in any case you cannot define a policy to follow, but this decision must be done on a case-by-case basis. – Bakuriu Oct 28 '14 at 16:05
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    @Bakurui, that's right for most protected characteristics, for disability the law seems to be a bit more open. EmilJeřábek, they've probably just made a mistake drafting their form. Any UK university discriminating against any person on grounds of ethnicity would be absolutely crucified. If it's a serious concern then contact the EASS. – A E Oct 28 '14 at 16:13
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    @VladimirF, did the form not have a preamble indicating why they were asking and who would see it and that the information was entirely voluntary? – Dancrumb Oct 28 '14 at 17:35
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  • The employing professor will not have access to this data.
  • You can omit anything in this form.
  • The data from this form goes to HR and is aggregated there so they can prove to auditing bodies that the staff distribution is not skewed (i.e. that they are not discriminating on basis of whatever)
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    Do you have a reference for this? – Wrzlprmft Oct 28 '14 at 13:50
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    The same is true in the US, and this information is (in my experience) always explained on the form itself. – Nate Eldredge Oct 28 '14 at 14:16
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    I second this, when I was applying to UK institutions it was explicitly mentioned that only HR looks at this. – Ana Oct 28 '14 at 16:29
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    @CapeCode this answer specifically addresses the OP's question. Can you highlight where you think it is lacking? – Dancrumb Oct 28 '14 at 17:09
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    @CapeCode Because it can be a way of detecting intentional or unintentional bias in the hiring process. Much of the racism inherent in hiring is unintentional - white people naturally have a slight preference for other white people [and same for other races, but in many cases there are more white people in hiring positions]. It is helpful to know to what extent (if any) this applies at your place-of-work, so you can take steps to correct it if it is occurring. – Joe Oct 28 '14 at 18:34
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No, this information will not be made available to the hiring committee and not filling out this information will not have any negative consequences.

The university uses the data to monitor discrimination - from time to time, it is checked whether the percentage of successful applicants from minorities is roughly the same as the percentage of the respective minorities among the applicants. If the ratio is very off and the number of hirings was sufficient to indicate a "trend for discrimination", the university will take measures to prevent this in the future. And for this, they need to collect the data.

  • Useful answer. Note that using 'race' or 'ethnicity' as demographic categories is location dependent. Although it can be shocking when one comes from a non-Anglo-Saxon country to fill a form with a 'race' or 'ethnicity' category, it is common in these countries for a variety of reasons having to do with politics and history. It can be very puzzling (say, you are from Spain and speak Spanish, and you study in the US it's hard to figure out which category to check). – Cape Code Oct 31 '14 at 16:58
  • @CapeCode: I'd think that being from Spain and speaking Spanish were irrelevant to the question of ethnicity. Surely Spain contains people of many different ethnicities. – A E Nov 2 '14 at 19:06
  • @AE so what is relevant? Does this person classifies as 'Hispanic'? Apparently not, but why? The whole thing is just absurd to anyone who is not used to American racialism. – Cape Code Nov 2 '14 at 20:03
  • @CapeCode: 'Hispanic' usually means someone of Latin American descent, so it would be relevant if the person was descended from a Latin American family (which someone Spanish might or might not be). The best box to tick depends on what the choices are. You usually get the option of 'other'. Worth emphasising here that the point of these questions is normally to avoid racial bias in recruitment - I wouldn't call that 'racialism'. – A E Nov 2 '14 at 20:08
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    @AE there are multiple issues with the concept of 'Latin American descent' but this is not the place to discuss it. Just keep in mind that when racial categories are normal in an Anglo-Saxon/American setting, they are uncommon and surprising to newcomers. – Cape Code Nov 3 '14 at 18:00
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It would be illegal for them to take this type of information into account when making hiring decisions - it would be 'direct discrimination':

It is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of:

  • age
  • being or becoming a transsexual person
  • being married or in a civil partnership
  • being pregnant or having a child
  • disability
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • religion, belief or lack of religion/belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

These are called ‘protected characteristics’.

You’re protected from discrimination in these situations:

  • at work
  • in education
  • as a consumer
  • when using public services
  • when buying or renting property
  • as a member or guest of a private club or association

https://www.gov.uk/discrimination-your-rights/types-of-discrimination

As other people have already said, many employers collect this information (while keeping it secret from the people making the hiring decision) in order to ensure that their recruitment process doesn't contain systemic 'indirect discrimination', which is:

putting rules or arrangements in place that apply to everyone, but that put someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage.

https://www.gov.uk/discrimination-your-rights/how-you-can-be-discriminated-against

If you leave that section of the form blank then it should not count against you in your job application (often the form will say this on it somewhere).

There is an exception in that 'positive discrimination' is (since a change in the law quite recently) allowed in certain, quite limited, circumstances:

Employing people with protected characteristics

You can choose a job candidate who has a protected characteristic over one who doesn’t if they’re as suitable for the job and you think that people with that characteristic:

  • are underrepresented in the workforce, profession or industry
  • suffer a disadvantage connected to that characteristic (eg people from a certain ethnic group are not often given jobs in your sector)

You can only do this if you’re trying to address the under-representation or disadvantage for that particular person. You must make decisions on a case by case basis and not because of a certain policy.

You can’t choose a candidate who isn’t as suitable for the job just because they have a protected characteristic.

Disabled people When recruiting you can treat a disabled person more favourably than a non-disabled person because of their disability.

https://www.gov.uk/employer-preventing-discrimination/recruitment

See also: The Equality Act 2010 and positive action - Commons Library Standard Note

If you find that an employer is breaking the law in respect of discrimination, then contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service (free).

Some examples of the types of issues we have advised on:

  • An individual who was unhappy about the way that the younger clientele at work treated him and spoke to him because he was an older person.
  • A Trans individual, who had transitioned from male to female, who worked for a security company and reapplied for a security pass only to discover that the process for renewing her pass had disclosed the fact she had undergone gender reassignment surgery.

http://www.equalityadvisoryservice.com/app/about

11

Under the equal opportunity act UK employers are not allowed to discriminate on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

These forms allow them to help check that this is not happening by comparing the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful candidates, as well as the general population.

The data should be treated as confidential, although exact wording varies between forms.

Completing such forms is generally not compulsory and most forms will have a prefer not to say option for most categories.

My advice if you are still concerned would be to contact whowever is running the admissions process and ask them (politely) what the data will be used for. They should be able to tell you (or find out).

5

As a lecturer and department head, at least in the UK I can tell you this answer is far simpler than those above.

Colleges and universities are able to sell the information gained from the equal opportunities segment of our application forms. There is no legal requirement to include it in the process, but it does generate extra income which every educational establishment is fighting for these days.

You do not have to put anything, and I would actually advise you not to. It does not form any part of the administrative profiling for students, and the majority of the time teachers never even see these forms once you fill them in and any employers would certainly never have access to them.

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    Jay, are you sure? Selling 'sensitive personal data' without the consent of the individual whose data it is (and without meeting any of the other conditions for processing), is very definitely illegal under the Data Protection Act. Could this just be an urban myth among the university's staff? – A E Oct 28 '14 at 17:17
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    Yes, I am very sure. It is not illegal at all and is not considered sensitive as it is sold on as simple statistical numbers. It would be illegal if it contained names for example, but to sell on the information that there are X number of homosexual students at X college is legal. – Jay Cobb Oct 28 '14 at 17:26
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    Oh sure, of course it's legal for them to disclose the demographic mix of the college. That's not the same thing as selling individuals' personal data. – A E Oct 28 '14 at 17:30
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    @JayCobb Why would teachers see this information anyway? (Not least, in this case, because the asker is applying to be an employee, not a student.) – David Richerby Oct 28 '14 at 20:48
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    @David Richerby, I am also concerned by the "majority of the time" statement. If any teachers are seeing any of these forms it most likely represents at least a breach of internal procedures, if not an offence. – DeveloperInDevelopment Oct 28 '14 at 20:54
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The general idea behind "equal opportunity" employment is that if two candidates appear equally suitable for the job, the candidate with a more favourable "minority status" will be selected.

You may always ask if it's compulsory to give that information. My personal stance is that none of that information is relevant to the job, so the employer has no need to know.

Edit: Contrary to the comments suggesting I am wrong, this does happen, though not in the UK. For example, see the DESY.de jobs website.

"Comment on all job offers: Handicapped persons will be given preference to other equally qualified applicants. DESY supports the careers of women and therefore encourages especially women to apply."

NOAO says:

Preference granted to qualified Native Americans living on or near the Tohono O’odham reservation.

I don't know how widespread this sort of policy is. But if I can find one institute in Germany and another in the USA, surely I can find more.

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    The other answers suggest that this information is not even part of the hiring decision. Do you have evidence to suggest that it is? – Nate Eldredge Oct 28 '14 at 14:28
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    I do not believe this is correct. In fact most of these forms explicitly state that the information will not be shown to the selection committee. – nivag Oct 28 '14 at 15:12
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    @NateEldredge This is what I remember from reading a couple of job adverts a while back. I guess I was mistaken in thinking that was a common policy. Hey, maybe I even remember incorrectly. Consider this answer a "senior moment", unless I can dig up the employer's policy that said this. – Moriarty Oct 28 '14 at 15:47
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    Such positive discrimination would likely be illegal under UK law: "positive discrimination continues to be illegal in most cases". Parliamentary Briefing Note: The Equality Act 2010 and positive action – A E Oct 28 '14 at 15:50
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    @zxq9 the downvotes occurred before I added references, and my claim is still wrong for UK universities (as are specified in the question). The downvotes to my original answer were fair and justified. – Moriarty Oct 31 '14 at 17:01
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Some good responses to this question are already supplied (especially to OP's "Why do they need that? Will there be any consequences from not specifying these? Will the employing professor have access to the data?").

What there seems still to be lacking in the answers is any specific data from the UK university sector. This is not hard to find, and here are a couple of representative examples:

  • University of Cambridge

    We understand that some applicants may not wish to provide sensitive personal information to us at this stage, which is why we have provided the option to answer each equal opportunities question with ‘Prefer not to say’.

  • University of Nottingham

    It is not necessary for you to include personal information in the main body of your application form, e.g. sex, age, marital or civil partnership status, gender reassignment, sexual orientation, nationality, country of birth, religion.

A lot more information is found on even those two pages, and many universities put their policies online in PDF form, so not so convenient for linking here. This sort of search also demonstrates that such policies and procedures are found across the sector, and not restricted to a few odd-ball institutions.

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So they can prove that they aren't discriminating against non-majority race/sex/orientation individuals. The unfortunate bit is that this means they must prioritize anything in the non-majority r/s/o category (usually something rather specific, depending on the prevailing politics), which has the unfortunate effect of de-prioritizing folks who happen to fall into the category considered "the majority" (which is often a perceived majority and not an actual one, if a majority even exists).

Your professors or whoever else don't have access to individual information of this sort, it is used as an aggregate for central planning authorities. Isn't politics lovely?

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    Another answer pointed out that "positive discrimination" of the kind you're referring to is in fact very limited (by law) in the UK. The question specifically refers to a UK university. – ff524 Oct 31 '14 at 17:06
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    @ff524 You're right, because the law is always upheld, especially when it is in conflict with an organizational agenda. – zxq9 Oct 31 '14 at 17:35
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    The other answers also point out that the people making the hiring decisions don't have access to this information at the time they're doing the hiring, which makes the kind of "positive discrimination" you refer to impossible. – ff524 Oct 31 '14 at 17:55
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    @ff524 Since when are universities are exempt from The Equality Act of 2010? Were they also exempt from the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, Race Relations Act of 1976, and Disability Discrimination Act of 1996? To pretend that there is no bureaucratic pressure at all is a bit simple. The history of the origin of such entries even existing on application forms traces to this very phenomenon. – zxq9 Oct 31 '14 at 20:35
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    @zxq9: What is the "organizational agenda" and "bureaucratic pressure" that you're talking about? If you read the relevant Act you'll find it's not about being in a minority but rather being in a group which is discriminated against. And why shouldn't central government have access to demographic information? – A E Nov 2 '14 at 19:14

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