Sharma, Singh, Sheng or Smith – who will get the job?

Study says that candidates with similar qualifications but with “easier names" are often viewed more favourably during the screening and interview stages.

A new study has found that having hard-to-pronounce names results in poorer job placements for people with PhDs. The working paper is based on the real-world employment outcomes of some 1,500 economics job candidates from about 100 PhD programs following the 2016–17 to 2017–18 market cycles in the US.

The authors, Qe Gi and Stephen Wu found that having a hard-to-pronounce name is associated with a significantly lower likelihood of getting an academic job or obtaining a tenure-track position at a university. Their paper notes that there is “strong evidence for labor market discrimination against individuals with names that are hard to pronounce.” It adds:

“Job candidates with difficult-to-pronounce names are much less likely to be placed into an academic job or to land a tenure-track position, and also are placed in jobs at much lower ranked institutions, as measured by research productivity. These results are statistically significant and economically large in magnitude.”

Fiona Price (Image supplied)

Fiona Price, a Melbourne-based cross-cultural communication specialist and expert on multicultural names, believes that the real problem here doesn’t lie with the people with names from languages other than English. She says:

“It lies with the large proportion of native English speakers who are monolingual and lack the knowledge, confidence and linguistic skills to navigate culturally diverse names.”

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Gi and Wu note that their research doesn’t pinpoint what causes such discrimination, but they do have a guess: the initial screening process at a university “generally involves committees getting together to discuss names of potential candidates, which may lead to some subconscious discrimination against names that are harder to pronounce and/or remember.”

Further, after the screening stage, it is possible that candidates with similar qualifications but with “easier names are viewed more favorably during the initial and final stages of interviews.”

Dr Ritesh Chugh, Associate Professor at CQ University (Facebook)

Dr Ritesh Chugh, Associate Professor at CQ University, points out that this isn’t the first study on name discrimination and won’t be the last either. He says that many similar studies globally have found that name-based discrimination is rife in different contexts – job interviews and hiring, university places, and rental housing.

“So, while studies show that non-Anglo names are negatively discriminated against, it doesn’t mean people should change their names because names often have cultural significance and represent an individual’s identity.”

Dr Chugh adds that in multicultural Australia, there is an urgent need to create more awareness and acceptance of different names from ethnic minorities. He adds:

“Changing names to Anglo versions to suit the work environment doesn’t help create greater acceptance. Moreover, changing a name is akin to losing one’s identity. Instead, whenever someone mispronounces your real name, it is important to correct it, rather than change it.

Many recruiters have trialled blind resumes where name and gender are removed to rule out unconscious bias. Perhaps, it is time to make that a standard practice. Singh, Sharma, Sheng or Smith should all be considered equally for a job. Everyone deserves a fair-go based on skills and knowledge rather than their name.”

Fiona adds that the name bias isn’t unconscious, it is very conscious – “It’s like avoiding names that might expose their ignorance and get them into trouble!” As a solution to make highly skilled people confident in the job market, Fiona also suggests educating the native English speaker. She adds:

“Rather than placing the responsibility on the bearers of ‘challenging’ names to anglicise their names, and/or pushing for new policies aimed at reducing name discrimination (such as compulsory anonymising of CVs), why don’t we give native English speakers the tools they need to handle a wider variety of names?

This is a win-win: English speakers would enlarge their skill set and the talent pool they can confidently draw on; applicants with diverse names would feel more confident about sending in applications with their own names and knowing they would be evaluated fairly.”

The latest research also suggests that name discrimination is not restricted to merely hiring and possibly goes beyond the hiring stage as some individuals adapt to an Anglicized first name for acceptance and career growth.