Name-blind recruitment can help, particularly for entry-level roles. 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 recruitment is another potentially beneficial approach. Rather than looking at the entirety of each CV in turn, you compare them in sections, scoring all the candidates on each part before coming up with an overall score that’s less influenced by their personal details.
Personally I think one of the hardest things about the job market is not knowing how much of a role discrimination might be playing. Did your application get rejected because you don’t have enough experience? Or did it just get binned because they couldn’t be bothered to learn how to say your name? “As a single individual, it’s very hard to prove discrimination, and that’s why it’s underreported,” says di Stasio.
I know people who’ve resorted to the nuclear option of sending in the same application under a white pseudonym. But this rarely yields satisfactory results—there are too many variables. You need the scale of academic research to really see what’s going on. Kang and her colleagues sent out 16,000 job applications as part of their research, for instance. Yousaf’s case is unusual in that he and his wife managed to get something close to a smoking gun—he is now pursuing legal action against the nursery, which denies any wrongdoing.
All that means is that it’s hard to quantify the impact my name has had on my life. No, it hasn’t ruined it—I’m in a good job, in a great city, doing something I enjoy. But still, it’s hard not to play Sliding Doors in your head, and wonder what life might have looked like for Adam rather than Amit. It was probably somewhat harder for me to get a job, initially. I remember being completely unable to get work experience when I was writing to companies as a 15-year-old, while my peers secured placements at law firms and newspapers. I might have ended up in a completely different career, or been more (or less) successful in the one I’m in now.
But the die might have been cast before that. “There’s sorting that happens throughout your life,” says Kang. “Those kinds of barriers come up again and again.” Was I treated differently by teachers who couldn’t say my name properly? Did discrimination play a role in the nursery I went to, or the friends I made, or the grades I was given? I’ll never know.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to disassociate name discrimination from straight up racism. But research from Sweden found that immigrants who adopted Nordic-sounding surnames had better outcomes than those who kept their original names—their earnings increased by 26 percent on average. (In the UK, it costs £18 to change your name by deed poll.) There’s been little research done on the role first names might play, but some studies suggest that mixing Western-sounding first names with foreign surnames “isn’t enough to eliminate the discrimination,” Kang says.
Names can open doors, and they can also close them. 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).
It’s why some people feel the need to resort to changing their name altogether to ease their path —whether that’s by anglicizing a surname, shortening a first name to make it more pronounceable to Western tongues, or abandoning it and adopting a new one altogether.
In fact, even Amitabh Bhachan, the Bollywood star for whom I was named, isn’t actually using the name he was born with. He was born Amitabh Shrivastava. 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.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.