The ‘Difficult’ Name Penalty

Study finds having hard-to-pronounce names—from the perspective of native English speakers—results in poorer job placements for economics Ph.D.s.

June 29, 2022
Name sticker with "Hello, my name is" written at the top on a blue field.
Economics Ph.D.s with hard-to-pronounce names face hiring discrimination, according to this new working paper.
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Prior studies have found evidence of name-based discrimination in hiring. But while such research often used fake applications to examine how would-be employers responded to names distinctively associated with a particular race or gender, one new preliminary study looks at name fluency: how long it takes to a pronounce an applicant’s name.

In addition to studying name discrimination from a new angle, this working paper is also based on the real-world employment outcomes of some 1,500 economics job candidates from about 100 Ph.D. programs following the 2016–17 to 2017–18 market cycles, not hypotheticals.

Ultimately, the authors found that having a name that takes longer to pronounce is associated with a significantly lower likelihood of being placed into an academic job or obtaining a tenure-track position. Having a hard-to-pronounce name—from the perspective of native English speakers, that is—also is associated with initial job placement at an institution with lower research productivity, as measured by the research rankings in the Research Papers in Economics database.

These findings generally held true when the authors tried different ways of measuring pronunciation difficulty, including a computer algorithm based on common letter and sound combinations. These disparate outcomes also persisted when controlling for factors such as candidates’ Ph.D.-granting institution and their home country.

Across the two Ph.D. cohorts, the paper says, there is “strong evidence for labor market discrimination against individuals with names that are hard to pronounce. 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.”

According to the paper, one standard deviation increase in the median time it takes to pronounce a candidate’s full name lowers the likelihood of obtaining an academic or tenure-track job by roughly eight percentage points and results in placement in an institution that is nearly 100 spots lower, as ranked in the Research Papers in Economics database.

The magnitude of effects for first and last names is roughly the same. The researchers didn’t find the effect was about the candidates’ qualifications, as there was no relationship “between name pronunciation and outcomes related to research quality such as the publication status of one’s job market paper or Google Scholar citation counts.”

What’s going on? The researchers say their work doesn’t allow them to pinpoint a mechanism of discrimination. But they offer some guesses. For job searches at academic, governmental and research institutions, the paper says, an initial screening “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.”

Beyond this screening stage, the authors venture, it’s possible that candidates with “easier names are viewed more favorably during the initial and final stages of interviews, as discussed in prior research.”

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The paper suggests that this kind of name discrimination possibly goes beyond—or begins before—hiring. So the results “may in fact be underestimating the true long-term impact of discrimination based on difficulty of name pronunciation.”

Co-author Stephen Wu, Irma M. and Robert D. Morris Professor of Economics at Hamilton College, said Tuesday that he’s in the process of incorporating more data into the paper, namely from prior experimental studies that used fictitious résumés to see if perceived race based on names would impact callback rates for job applicants. “We find that even within ethnic-sounding names, those with harder-to-pronounce names are less likely to get called for a job,” he said.

Asked about implications for academe, such as expanding the use of blind reviews of CVs, Wu said such a change might be “difficult,” but that it “certainly that would be a way to combat this type of bias.”

Even the awareness that this type of bias exists “might be helpful for hiring committees to know,” he said. “While you can never totally eliminate these types of unconscious biases, the initial awareness may help limit it.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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