The Weight of a Name

When an organization is hiring someone to fill a job, it’s very difficult to avoid bias in the hiring process – because, at some point, the hiring decision is subjective. The applicants for the job may have very similar qualifications and experience, which then usually leads to assessments such as how well each applicant would “fit” within the organization. “Fit” is a subjective assessment, and when subjective assessments become an exercise in “how much is this person like the people that are already here”, that’s when unintended or explicit bias can affect the hiring decision.

Numerous studies have shown that hiring decisions can be biased by factors like the ethnicity of the applicant’s name, their appearance, and their social class. Now, two economists, Qi Ge and Stephen Wu, have published a very interesting research study of another possible source of bias in hiring: how difficult it is to pronounce the applicant’s name.

The data that these researchers used for their study was taken from 1500 applicants looking for jobs in economics – in universities, governments, and private-sector organizations – over two years. It’s worth noting that the field of economics has been heavily criticized for being male-dominated, racist, and homophobic, so it may be a particularly appropriate occupation in which to explore the effect of “unusual” names on hiring decisions.

The researchers collected publicly available resumes for graduating PhD students in economics. They then used LinkedIn profiles and information on university websites to determine where the students were hired over that two-year period, or if they had been hired at all. They also used external rankings of universities to see whether the students that got academic jobs had been hired by economics departments with high numbers of research publications, as a measure of how prestigious those departments might be perceived to be.

The researchers then used three different methods to assess the difficulty of pronouncing each student’s name – “difficult” being defined as difficult for an English speaker. First, they hired research assistants who recorded themselves reading each student’s first and last name, and measured how long it took the research assistant to read the name, including any pauses while they tried to figure it out.  Second, they wrote an algorithm that searched each name for sequences of letters and phonemes that would be unusual in the English language, to produce a rating of how difficult the name might be for a native English speaker to pronounce. Finally, they got three independent raters to look at each name and rate it as easy or difficult to pronounce, and used the rating that the majority of the raters provided.

The researchers also collected information such as the perceived quality of the university the PhD student graduated from, the student’s gender, their record of published research, the research record of the student’s PhD advisor (which could be perceived as influencing the student’s own potential as a researcher), other graduate degrees the student had obtained, and the sub-field of economics that the student specialized in.

Being the same but being different (credit: Pixabay)

The researchers’ statistical analysis showed some rather dramatic results.

  • Applicants with more difficult-to-pronounce names were less likely to be hired for an academic position. Those that got academic positions were less likely to be hired for a tenure-track (permanent) position.
  • Applicants with stronger research records and a well-regarded PhD advisor were more likely to be hired for an academic position, but this did not cancel out the negative effects of having a difficult-to-pronounce name.
  • Applicants with difficult-to-pronounce names that got academic positions were more likely to be hired at lower-ranked universities.
  • Applicants who “Anglicized” their names by adopting a English first name (which the researchers point out are a small part of the sample) did not have significantly different job outcomes than applicants who did not adopt an English name.
  • Having a difficult-to-pronounce name did not affect the applicant’s research productivity, which, the researchers say, “support[s] the idea that the strong and robust relationship between name pronunciation difficulty and job placement is a result of discrimination, and not an artifact of an underlying correlation with research potential or ability” (p. 18).

As with any research study using data from only one type of workplace or occupation, there may be factors in that setting which may not be present in other settings. However, the researchers make a very good observation by pointing out that the members of hiring committees for jobs requiring PhDs in economics are usually economists with PhDs. So the people making these biased decisions are highly-educated people who, you would hope, would be aware of the potential for bias and trying to avoid it in their own decisions.

Almost all universities have some sort of public-facing “diversity statement” – here’s an example from one of the top-ranked economics departments in the US – and more universities are requiring applicants for academic jobs to include a “diversity statement” in their application, to show how they would support the university’s own diversity work, and how they would incorporate diversity into their own research and teaching. It’s more than a little ironic that with diversity getting such attention in university hiring processes, it seems that not much is changing if applicants can be disadvantaged by a small thing like an “unusual” name.

Publicly stating that diversity is important is one thing. Substantive action to support diversity is something else, and that something else needs to happen as well. Hiring processes are a good place to begin that work.

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