Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Economics of Ethnic and Feminine Names

During a second, extended stint of unemployment, I came across an article about a man having trouble finding work.[1] He realized it must be his unisex, but usually assumed to be female, name. He remedied it by adding Mr. to his resume. All of a sudden, he started receiving call backs from employers, whereas there was only silence during the previous months. I then came across a study that determined it took longer for those with ethnic or non-Anglo sounding names to find work. I have an “ethnic” name since I’m Persian and live in the U.S. It’s a unisex name, but it ends in an “a” and has a “sh” sound in it, so it sounds feminine. I felt like less of a failure, but I was pissed.

I’d been sending out resumes on and off for years to no avail. I would get jobs through friends or family. I figured the adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” to be true, but it was so limiting. So, I did my own experiment. I changed my name on my resume and set up a corresponding resume. I started receiving calls the same day I sent out those resumes, even from placement agencies. I felt victorious! The world was my oyster! I started thinking I should change my name to a unisex, Anglo name. World domination was only a few letters away.

Unfortunately, I’d underestimated the love I have for my own name and what it means to me.

I’m sitting in the waiting room of a placement agency filling out paperwork, when one of their staff comes out and starts calling for a Nicole. “Nicole? . . . Nicole? . . . Nicole?” I give the blonde girl across the room a death stare thinking, “Hello. Don’t you know your own name?” Then, I would remember and raise my hand. I ended up being placed as a temp.

The feeling of my soul caving in whenever someone called me by my chosen Anglo name was not something I had anticipated. I didn’t think I would care or that it would be a big deal. After all, most people seem to use the nickname versions of their names. I thought it would be the same thing. No, not even close. I felt invisible and resentful. I would think, “Why can’t people just suck it up a teensy, tiny, the tiniest bit and try to say my short, phonetically spelled, not-so-common name? It even has an English word in it! Why am I not worthy of a job with the beautiful name my parents gave me? An old name with meaning? I have the same credentials – all of the same experience and education. Hell, better and more. I worked so hard, but it doesn’t matter because of my name? Does it really make you that uncomfortable/nervous/self-conscious?”

I started to dread receiving a permanent placement or coming across a posting for a dream job and having to apply with one of my fake-name resumes. Luckily, my mom passed along my resume with my name to someone at a placement agency who was the same ethnicity as us. I was placed in a permanent position where I wowed my employer so much, I received a promotion and more than a 10% raise within the first year. Could I have done the same if I’d been that other girl with that other name? Probably, but I know it would’ve been more bitter than sweet.

Whenever I meet other Persians who introduce themselves as Mike, Henry, or Mo and I know their names are actually Mehrdad, Hamid, and Masood, I cringe. To each their own, but whenever we have to change something so fundamental to please a weakness in society, it is wrong. It just feeds the disease. As an immigrant woman, I come up against all kinds of powers that want to change me. I refuse as much as I can. We lose something of ourselves each time we have to change when we don’t want to. If enough of those little bits are lost, it will add up to larger and larger chunks of our culture and our history being lost. I have no quarrel with assimilation, but both sides of our identities should be acknowledged and accepted in public spaces.

I found myself back on the job hunt, in a city where I don’t know anyone, much less anyone of my ethnicity. Remembering the feeling of being called by the other name, I hesitated about which resume I need to use. I hesitated, but I know it’s about survival. Paying rent and buying food shouldn’t trump what I consider an essential part of myself. My name doesn’t do me much good sitting in my old room at my parents’ house. So, I compromised.

My new resume has an Anglo nickname in quotes between my first and last names. I posted it on Monster and started receiving inquiries from recruiters for non-sales, in-my-industry positions almost immediately. I was taken aback until I realized that a funny thing had happened on the way to globalization. Those recruiters? Outsourced employees of American companies all of whom have Indian names. This time around, I didn’t feel victorious or that the world was my oyster. I almost cried from relief at the thought of a level playing field where I was judged by the content of my resume and not the origin or perceived difficulty of my name.

Oddly enough, companies trying to benefit their bottom line may have inadvertently lessened discrimination in hiring. Studies on cost-savings and how outsourcing erodes the middle class were a regular occurrence when it first started happening. There have also been studies on how outsourcing could help developing countries. However, I haven’t come across any studies on how globalization could benefit those of us in the U.S. with unusual names, i.e. immigrants and minorities. Maybe it’s time to mine through the data.

I came across an article from 2014 about a man named Jose who dropped the “s” in his name on his resume.[2] He hadn’t had any luck finding a job and then, all of sudden, he started getting responses. Here’s hoping that the José’s and Newshas in this world will soon no longer have to become Joes and Nicoles. Our accomplishments will be enough and who we are will be enough. Working may not be a right. It may be a privilege, but it’s one we have more than earned.

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