My mum named me after the Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachan, a suave star of Indian cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. My classmates in school, a predominantly white area of south England, didn’t get the reference.
At that age any difference can be a source for deep embarrassment. Having a foreign surname is another example. From shrugging off rhyming jokes to correcting or too shy to correct mispronunciations, to shrugging off rhyming jabs, it’s all part of the fun. Ahmed, Amir–even though I am correct in uttering my name to family members, it isn’t accurate.
You do, however, grow into who you are. As I grew older, I began to value the uniqueness and to be more comfortable with it. It is your badge, regardless of how you feel about it. Sometimes, those signals are even harmful.
On August 1, Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s health secretary, accused the Little Scholars Nursery in Dundee of discriminating against his young daughter on the basis of her name. Nadia El-Nakla, Yousaf’s wife, emailed the nursery asking about spaces for Amal, their 2-year-old girl. A friend who had a whiter name than Yousaf emailed them the following day and was given three options for afternoons as well as a tour of their nursery. A journalist who used a similar strategy to follow up on the inquiry got the same results: the fictitious parent with a Muslim-sounding surname was not allowed to have their child in the nursery, while white applicants were offered options and details about how they could enroll.
This is not an isolated case, it’s something you can easily dismiss. Research over decades has shown that discrimination against Black people in employment and education is real. A cleverly designed study in the United States found that candidates with Black-sounding names needed eight more years of experience to get the same number of callbacks as those with white-sounding names, for instance. The same result has been confirmed by decades of similar research.
Humza Yousaf was a deeply disturbing story. My wife and I, who are both 33 years old, will soon be buying a home together. To make it easier for my hypothetical children, I have been obsessing about the demographics in the places we are considering moving. Perhaps I could have spent more time creating a surname that is more English for them.
I was moved by Yousaf’s story and began to think about how my name has influenced my character and career. What would I look like if someone called me something else? I don’t know how many doors were opened in my life without even realizing it. Is my name ruining my life?
The most recent work on this in Europe is the GEMM survey, a five-year, five-nation field study where researchers applied for thousands of real jobs using a mixture of different names (GEMM stands for Growth, Equal Opportunities, Migration, and Markets). These are the shocking results. To get the same number of callbacks, ethnic minorities had to submit 60 percent more applications than white majority.
Although I thought being British Asian and living in London would protect me from these negative effects, the truth is that the reverse seems to be true. Higher rates of discrimination were seen in countries with more history of immigrants from ex-colonies. The study also examined the Netherlands, Norway, Germany and Spain. It found that British employers are the most discriminatory. “We were a bit surprised by that,” says Valentina di Stasio, an assistant professor at Utrecht University who worked on the research. It’s quite high, even by international standards.
This effect was universal across different countries and jobs, from high-skilled software back-end positions to customer-facing roles in the service sector. There was an unambiguous hierarchy of preference in Britain regarding which ethnicities were preferred in the job market. First, white names received the most replies, then Western European and Asian and Middle Eastern. Finally, African.
Di Stasio was able to use her British data and compare it with other studies done in the 1960s. This is when my grandparents arrived in the country. They were subjected to abuse from their neighbours and even outright hostility. “We saw that the level of discrimination faced by South Asians and Pakistanis was as strong today as it was at the end of the 1960s, in terms of the level of discrimination that applicants faced,” di Stasio says.
Although society may seem to have moved forward since then, discrimination could be more pervasive and insidious. In the future, hiring algorithms trained on biased human decisions could perpetuate discrimination and lock it in for decades.
I wanted to get a sense of what was driving this phenomenon, so I spoke to Sonia Kang, an associate professor at the University of Toronto in Canada who has conducted extensive research into name discrimination and CV whitening. She says that she doesn’t believe it is active racism, but instead points to subtle processes such as name fluency and nofollow noopener. A hiring manager might see a name they are unable to pronounce and think “I don’t believe it’s really active racism”
Many companies claim they are open to diversity. However, this is unlikely to change until the population of those making hiring decisions is more representative of the nation. Kang found that companies with diversity statements on their websites were just as likely to discriminate against candidates with nonwhite names, and in fact may be making matters worse for ethnic minority candidates who could be “tricked into a false sense of security.”
Name discrimination isn’t just limited to race–researchers at Syracuse University in New York have found that female names tended to be rated as less competent, while male ones were seen as less warm. For men, it is short and sharp names such as Jack that are more appealing to women with feminine names. Sophie’s name for Sophie makes them seem less attractive. Old-fashioned names get treated differently.
Particularly for entry-level positions, name-blind recruiting can be a great option. But Kang’s research has found that other signifiers of race and religion in a person’s CV can hamper their chances–volunteering at your local church may boost your job prospects; doing so at your local mosque might not. Horizontal recruiting is another option. Instead of looking through each CV individually, you look at them as sections and score each candidate on that part. Then, you come up with a total score which is less affected by personal details.
My personal opinion is that the most difficult thing about the job market, for me personally, isn’t knowing the extent of role discrimination. Is it possible that your application was rejected due to insufficient experience. Did they just not have enough experience? Di Stasio says that discrimination is difficult to prove as a single person and therefore it is under-reported.
People I know have used the nuclear option to send the same application using a different pseudonym. This is not a good option as there are many variables. To really understand what is going on, you need to do academic research. Kang and her coworkers sent 16,000 applications for jobs as part of their research. Yousaf’s story is unique in the sense that Kang and her colleagues sent out 16,000 job applications as part of their research. He is currently pursuing legal action against nursery to prove his innocence.
It’s difficult to measure the positive impact that my name has made on my life. It hasn’t destroyed it. I’m still in a job that I love, and in an excellent city. It’s difficult to not play Slider Doors and imagine what Amit might have experienced. I found it more difficult to find a job initially. When I was 15 years old, I recall being unable to find work experience while I was writing to companies. My peers got placements in law firms or newspapers. It is possible that I could have gone into a different field or had more success in my current job.
However, the die may have already been cast. Kang says that there is always some sorting in your life. Kang says that these kinds of obstacles are present again and again. Did discrimination play a role in the nursery I went to, or the friends I made, or the grades I was given? It’s something I won’t know.
Disassociating name discrimination and straight-up racism is difficult, if it’s not impossible. Research from Sweden showed that those immigrants who chose to adopt a Nordic-sounding name had higher earnings than those who retained their names. On average, 26 percent more earned. It costs PS18 in the UK to have your name changed by deed vote. Kang states that although there has been very little research on the impact of first names, some studies show that mixing Western-sounding surnames with foreign ones “isn’t enough to eradicate discrimination.”
The name can be used to open and close doors. It’s why some countries maintain lists of banned names–in Italy, for instance, it’s illegal to call your child Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, or Joey Tribbiani; every year New Zealand publishes a list of names that have been declined for various reasons (2018’s list reads like a Burger King menu).
Some people may feel the need for a complete name change to help them along their way. This could be done by either anglicizing their surnames or shortening their first names to make them more easily understandable in Western languages. Or abandoning their old name and starting anew.
Even Amitabh Bhachan (the Bollywood superstar for whom I am named) isn’t using his birth name. Amitabh Shrivastava was his birth name. His father changed the family name when the actor was a boy, afraid that the family’s “low-caste” surname would keep his son from getting into school.
Original publication: WIRED UK.
Publiated at Sun, 22 August 2021, 13:03:51:51 +0000