Names matter! We build one of the closest associations with our names from early on in our lives. Our names are an integral part of our identity. Our names have rich and intimate personal stories. Names evoke emotions far more complex than our words can do justice to describe. Calling someone properly by their name – especially when that name is not very familiar to your ears – is an act of recognizing the uniqueness of each individual and respecting their personal stories.
Implications of the name go beyond our identity. In a 2018 study conducted by Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, researchers sent out almost 13,000 fake resumes to over 3,000 postings. The data showed that the fictitious candidates with Chinese, Indian or Pakistani-sounding names were 28% less likely to get invited to an interview than those with English-sounding names, even when their qualifications were identical. The same study was done in 2011 and the name bias was 35% strong (we made 7% progress in 7 years).
To avoid discrimination (or to fit in), many Asians adopt English names; many South Asians anglicize their names. In my first job in Canada as a customer support representative, I had an anglicized name – from Firoze to Roz – so that clients could say or remember it easily. I felt strange (cognitive dissonance—mental discomfort experienced for holding contradictory identities) every time I said: “Roz speaking”. I had no association with that name; it was not part of my identity. As an immigrant without any pre-existing social network in Canada, I desperately wanted to fit in to integrate, which caused me to compromise my authentic self. I can tell you confidently: it didn’t help!
As Canadians, we take pride in our multiculturalism and believe it to be a “mosaic society”. John Porter, one of the most prominent Canadian sociologists, debunked this myth in his groundbreaking book, The Vertical Mosaic. It was the first comprehensive, empirically-detailed, theoretically-informed study of the national structure of class and power in Canada. I believe it is perhaps one of the most important books ever written by a Canadian sociologist. Before Porter published his book, the Canadian society was believed to be democratic and egalitarian where anyone (irrespective of their background) could “make it”.
Unless we take an honest look at where we stand now, it is perhaps very hard to dedicate our energy towards our desired destination – one that is truly diverse and inclusive. I believe learning to respect the names of our colleagues is a step towards a more equitable and just workplace.