Is TEFL Recruitment Racist?

Sixty years since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Fifty-five years since Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. And, four decades after George Wallace said “I was wrong.” You might think, by now, we’d have racism under control. We don’t. In fact, the prevalence of racism in recruitment has not improved in the US since 1989 (Quilliana, Pagerc, Hexela & Midtbøenf, 2017). 


What about TEFL recruitment?  We know that our industry discriminates against “non-native English teachers”, but what about good old, garden-variety racism? One ex-colleague in Beijing summarized her school’s requirements for teachers in four words: “Teaching experience. Not black.” Is this phenomenon the same the world over? Or do some TEFL markets discriminate more than others?


Research Methods

To attempt to answer this question out, I created CVs for two teachers with similar qualifications.  Both CVs listed a 120 hour online TEFL qualification and a 2:1 bachelor’s degree from a UK university (Edinburgh and Leeds). The primary difference between the teachers was their skin color; one was black, the other white.


Previous studies into the effect of race on recruitment used similar CVs with ethnically distinct names to apply for identical jobs (Ojha & Syal, 2009; Adesina & Marocico, 2017; Nunley, Pugh, Romero & Seals, 2014). As distinctive names may be too subtle for many ESL employers (especially in Asia), I used photos in addition to names to investigate the effect of race on recruitment.


I submitted the CVs for 250 job advertisements, from Dave’s ESL Cafe’s job boards; 100 in China, 100 in Korea and 50 in Europe. Both the ‘black’ and the ‘white’ CV were submitted for each job advertisement. For fairness, the photos and names were swapped on 50% of the CV’s (in case some TEFL schools prefer teachers who graduated from Edinburgh over Leeds).    



The results show a strong preference for white teachers in Asia. The white candidate received 64% more positive responses from schools in China and 33% more from schools in Korea. Schools in Europe sent an equal number of positive responses to both candidates. Figure 1 shows the responses for the teachers by country. Figure 2 quantifies the additional positive responses received by the white candidate.


Figure 1: Percentages of responses to job applications

Figure 1: Percentages of responses to job applications

Figure 2: Additional positive responses to white applicant (as a percentage)

Figure 2: Additional positive responses to white applicant (as a percentage)


The results from China and Korea are similar to a 2009 UK study which found that white applicants were 78% more likely to receive a positive response to an application (Ojha & Syal 2009). Though we might assume that recruiters’ racial prejudices are to blame, a 2014 American study (Nunley, Pugh, Romero & Seals, 2014) found recruiter bias was not the prime culprit. That investigation found black applicants faced substantial discrimination when applying for customer facing jobs, but almost no discrimination when applying for jobs that were not client facing (ibid). The same phenomenon could explain our results; few professions interact more with customers than teachers.


Although many schools in Asia may be concerned that black teachers are bad for business, the American Sociological Association found that racial diversity is a strong predictor of a company's success. The more diverse the organization, the better their competitive positioning relative to other firms in the same industry (Herring, 2009). It remains to be seen whether this phenomenon is also true in TEFL.



If you are a black teacher reading this, removing the photo from your CV is unlikely to increase your chances of employment. If you are interviewing at a discriminatory school, the worst thing you can do is waste your time with a recruiter who will reject you the second they see your face. If you are an employer, taking the positive step of removing “personal data” (name, age, photo, etc.) from CVs still fails to address the real issue – discriminatory behavior and biases (Recruiting for Diversity, 2016). There is no quick fix for racism in recruitment.


However, there is hope. European schools appear not to discriminate on race. China and Korea do not represent the entire world. Further studies in other markets could reveal more about the extent of this problem.


Though most TEFL employers don’t state preferences for race on job boards in the same way they state preferences for “native English teachers”, the TEFL industry continues to harbor attitudes and processes which contribute to racial discrimination. This submerged part of the iceberg that needs to be raised before it can be cracked.



Nunley, J., Pugh, A., Romero, N., and Seals, A., R. Jr. (2014). An Examination of Racial Discrimination in the Labor Market for Recent College Graduates: Estimates from the Field. Auburn University Department of Economics Working Paper Series


Herring, C. (2009) Does Diversity Pay? Race, Gender, and the Business Case for Diversity. American Sociological Review, April 2009


Recruiting for Diversity, September 5 2016. Human Resource Management Guide. Retrieved from [Accessed 15 August 2017]


Ojha, S., Syal, R. (2009) Undercover job hunters reveal huge race bias in Britain's workplaces. The Observer. Retrieved from [Accessed 25 August 2017]



Quilliana, L., Pagerc, D., Hexela, O., Midtbøenf, A. (2017) Meta-analysis of field experiments shows no change in racial discrimination in hiring over time. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Retrieved from [Accessed 23 August 2017]


Image by Pixabay