What does your name say about you?

I was 13 years old when I woke up uncharacteristically early in the morning with the sense that something was wrong. I padded downstairs to find my dad standing in front of the TV, watching a plane crash into a building over and over. That day I went to school and the boys in my class were buzzing with excitement and using words that I had never heard together before. Terrorist. Muslim. Arab. One of the boys turned to me and told me that my name sounded like a Middle Eastern name, and for a little while after that they would yell out “Hang-Arab” at me and laugh hysterically. I have an uncommon name, sure, and the number of ridiculous nicknames I’ve had over the years could fill a book. What was different about that day was that it was the first time anyone had ever suggested to me that Angharad didn’t sound like a white name, and that was a bad thing.

In my first year at university, I was living on campus in a catered college. As I sat down one morning for breakfast, a young woman was in the middle of complaining loudly about how the international students who lived in the college don’t socialise enough with everyone else. To prove her point, she described a particular Indian student whose door she walked past every day but had never once met.

As she talked, my imagination conjured up an image of a student sadly studying by herself in her room, with beautiful long dark hair, red bindi, bright sari contrasting with cocoa skin. In other words, a complete and utter stereotype. Interested because I lived on the same corridor as the complainer, I asked her what the international student’s name was. The young woman talking brushed me off impatiently with an “Oh, I don’t know, it’s like Ann-, Anggahard or something”.

The demure Indian girl in my mind evaporated the instant I heard the familiar sound of that name mispronounced. It was me. The door she walked past every day was my door. The name she couldn’t say properly was my name. When someone pointed this out to her by pronouncing my name perfectly, she got quite defensive. I just sat there, mouth agape at both at my own preconceptions and the realisation that when people first saw my name, I was not who they imagined.

It’s pretty common for people to not know my full name. Whenever I meet people it’s always a bit of an ordeal explaining my name, and sometimes I just can’t be bothered with the whole backstory. I mean, I even dated a guy for the better part of two years who once told me that expecting him to be able to spell my first name correctly was unreasonable.

However, that inevitable introduction often can’t be helped, and I have lost count of how many times people have said to me, “That’s an interesting/unusual/exotic name. Is it Middle Eastern/Scandinavian/Russian/Indian?” When I tell them it’s Welsh, there’s always a discernible sigh of relief. Phew. White girl has white name. This is often followed by an “Oh yes, you look Welsh”.

The real problem is, however, that meeting me face-to-face isn’t always when people first come across my name.

In 2012 I decided it was time for me to get a legal job. I was in my final year of law school and I figured I should start getting some relevant work experience before I graduated. Prior to then, applying for jobs had been relatively easy. Working in hospitality generally involved walking into a bar with your CV, some degree of sexist decision-making on the part of the manager, and a trial to see if you could successfully catch beer from a tap into a glass. Applying for legal jobs was my first real exposure to sending out a blind job application and hoping for the best.

Scrolling through my email archives, I can see it didn’t take me long to cotton on when I found I wasn’t having much luck. After a couple of months of rejections, I clearly made the conscious decision to add my extremely anticlimactic Anglo middle name “Mary” to the top of my CV. Just a little flag to prospective employers not to worry, I’m Aussie, I speak English and, with a name like Mary, I’m obviously white. I can’t say for certain whether it made any difference, but shortly after that small change I got an interview and a job as a paralegal. When I upped the ante a few years later applying for grad jobs, some other small changes crept in as I received rejection after rejection. Nationality: Australian. English: native speaker.

If you google unconscious bias you get an absolute plethora of information, especially about bias in hiring and the workplace. Despite the fact that most of us would like to think that we aren’t biased in the way we see the world, we are. Even if you believe that discrimination and stereotyping is wrong, the sad truth is that we all do it. Our brains are hardwired to make assumptions and generalisations and to recognise patterns. Harvard University has been running an electronic tool called the implicit-assessment test since the late 1990s that lets you find out what kind of biases you have.

Bias in hiring practises is not a new concept. It had been noticed that despite more inclusive hiring practices that had been around since the 1950s, the number of women in USA orchestras was still very low. By introducing the process of applicants audition behind screens, rather than being hand-picked by conductors, the number of women in USA orchestras increased from 6% in 1970 to 21% by 1993. Studies since then have confirmed that a third of this increase can be directly attributed to the blind auditions.

A little late to the party, but after extremely low numbers of female finalists in its annual short film contest, Australian film festival Tropfest this year announced that they would be using blind judging and for the first time ever had 50% female finalists.

It’s not just gender that recruiters can be biased about, it’s also ethnicity. A study done by the Australian National University uncovered some pretty ugly facts about the disadvantage your name can put you to when applying for jobs. The researchers sent out 4,000 fake applications to entry level jobs with 5 categories of name: Anglo Saxon, Indigenous, Italian, Chinese and Middle Eastern. The results were shocking.

If you are Italian, you have to submit 12% more applications than an Anglo Saxon person to get an interview.

If you are Indigenous, that number jumps to 35% more.

If you are Middle Eastern, you have to submit 64% more.

If you are Chinese, you have to submit 68% more.

Another study published in the USA in 2008 looked at how people were judged based on the uniqueness of their names, and found that the more unusual the name, the less they were liked and the less likely they were to be hired.

Suddenly my email folder filled with rejections makes a bit more sense. So what do you do? The ANU article has some suggestions for individuals that make me feel a bit less bad about tinkering with my own CV to appease prospective employers. Anglicise your name. Don’t state your country of birth. Put your language skills front and centre. The USA study says parents should “reconsider choosing something distinctive” i.e. non-white sounding. While it might make a bit of a difference to your job application outcomes, it still feels a bit ick and puts the onus on the applicant to appear more white rather than addressing the underlying problem.

Luckily, workplaces are starting to twig that unconscious bias means that they are missing out on talent, profit and good staff retention. Just last year in an attempt to correct gender inequality in senior roles, the Australian Bureau of Statistics introduced blind recruitment and doubled the number of female managers in a matter of months. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron also spoke in favour of blind recruitment. Lots of workplaces are even starting to turn to technology to implement blind hiring practices. An African-American coder has even developed a job-seeker app that disguises identifying information from hirers after she found her own career stymied by unconscious bias.

Resume racism is one thing, but there is also a much deeper issue. The fact is, when I turn up to an interview, people are visibly relieved. When they stumble over reading my name from their clipboards and see a white girl stand up, their bodies relax, their shoulders drop, their smile brightens. “Oh, that’s an unusual name – where is it from?”

A recent study of members of the ACT South Sudanese community showed that despite 42% of members having tertiary qualifications, 100% had not been able to find jobs in their chosen fields and 96% were active job-seekers.

“Nearly all (89%) of the participants experienced racism in the process of looking for a job. Many had applied for more than 1,000 jobs. Their experiences included being discriminated against on the basis of race, skin colour, accent, having an African background and not having a Caucasian name.”

These statistics are heartbreaking. It’s one thing to be unable to get your foot in the door because of your CV; it’s a completely different thing to have the door slammed in your face because of where you come from.

So what can we do? The trouble with unconscious bias is exactly that: it’s unconscious. Whether we like it or not, we are all susceptible to stereotyping and, as the Harvard implicit-assessment test tells me, I am just as susceptible as anyone else. Even though we know diverse workplaces are better workplaces, your name does affect how easy it is for you to get a job. As an employer, it is really important that you are aware of your biases and take active steps to mitigate them. In addition to being unfair, it’s important to note that even inadvertently discriminating against someone could be breaking the law. The Australian Human Rights Commission has some suggestions on how to prevent discrimination in recruitment. My advice is to make an active effort to know your biases. There is going to come a time, even if you aren’t making hiring decisions, that someone will pass you a CV and ask you what you think. Instead of making a snap judgement from someone’s “difficult” name about their language abilities, take the time to read through the whole thing. You might just be looking at the best candidate.

Image: Glen Carstens-Peters


Angharad Lodwick 5Angharad is a Law graduate with a Masters in Asia-Pacific Studies. She started out writing for ANU’s Asia-Pacific Studies faculty publication Monsoon and the Law faculty magazine Peppercorn. She has been web editor and feature writer for Lost Magazine. Angharad is passionate about books, bunnies, South-East Asia and the Pacific, human rights, the environment, modern culture and all things avant garde. She also runs an extremely self-indulgent book review blog at Tinted Edges

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