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How hard-to-pronounce names could land resumes in the reject pile


What's in a name? Well, maybe a job. Adrian Ma and Wailin Wong from NPR's daily economics podcast, the Indicator, dig into some new research looking at people's names and pronunciation and how it might affect their job prospects.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: There's a famous saying that the sweetest sound a person can hear is the sound of their very own name. And that might be true if people don't routinely butcher your name. For Qi Ge, it happens a lot.

QI GE: For people who are - who do not have Chinese language background, they probably don't even know how to start.

MA: Qi is an economist at Vassar College. And he teamed up with another economist named Stephen Wu at Hamilton College.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: In their research, Stephen and Qi started with a list of names, specifically the names of 1,500 grad students who were getting their Ph.D.s in economics and actively looking for jobs. To decide which names were hard to pronounce, Qi and Stephen used a few different methods. One involved running the names through a computer algorithm. Names with letter combinations less common in English were rated more difficult.

MA: Another way Qi and Stephen measured what they called name fluency? They paid a bunch of people to sit in front of a computer, showed them one name at a time on the screen, and asked them to pronounce it.

STEPHEN WU: As they see a name on the screen - John, David, Adrian, Qui, right? So you might pause before one name that is looking unfamiliar. And so by looking at the timing that it takes between clicking, we can use that as a measure of how difficult a name would be.

MA: After sorting out the names that were more difficult to pronounce, Stephen and Qi looked at where these young economists ended up working. Did they land a plum academic job, which Stephen says are generally considered the most prestigious kind of econ gig? Or did they end up working for the government or in the private sector?

WONG: Qi says the result was striking. Those with harder-to-pronounce names were 10% less likely to land an academic job. And when they did, they more often ended up at less prestigious universities. It's like they incurred some kind of name pronunciation penalty.

MA: Yeah. And interestingly, this penalty was a little less severe for Ph.D.s who came from a top-20 research program, which I guess is kind of a silver lining?

WONG: Bottom line, the people doing the hiring in these econ departments seemed to levy some degree of name penalty on candidates with harder-to-pronounce names.

GE: You know, it seems that there is this bias simply driven by name fluency. To me, that's a little bit surprising.

MA: Like it kind of goes against this idea that economists are always, like, very coldly rational.

GE: Exactly.

MA: But Qi and Stephen did not stop there. In a separate analysis, they looked at people applying for private sector jobs. And they found those with harder-to-pronounce names got fewer callbacks from employers. Some people may hear this and wonder, should I change my name or use a different name on a job application? And, of course, a lot of people do already do that. But Stephen says the onus really ought to be on employers.

WU: People may not do this consciously. But it could be a subconscious thing where, oh, I'm looking at two resumes, pretty similar. I toss one to the side. There's research that shows that simply being aware of potential biases can sometimes limit them or make them a little less severe.

WONG: Wailin Wong.

MA: Adrian Ma, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DO MAKE SAY THINK'S "SOUL AND ONWARD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.
Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.

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