What’s in a name?

 In Diversity

I was having brunch with a high school friend last weekend and confided in her my struggles of trying to find a part-time gig. I knew I could tell her about this because she too has been looking for a job, since the end of her studies last year. She has been on the hunt for a job, from graduate roles to temporary gigs, for the past three to four months. She is a university graduate, has had experience in her field, and also had previous employment experiences, but yet she was struggling to find someone who would take on her skills and abilities.

It is a fact that university graduates are entering into a increasingly competitive job market. Every university graduate is not only graduating with a bachelor (or two), but along with a plethora of extra-curricular activities, internships and experience under their belt. It is the case where everyone is almost over qualified for positions. Be that as it may, it is also the case that it becomes even more difficult that people from “ethnic” backgrounds.

You see, my friend’s name is “Phuong”*. Simple enough to pronounce if you have grown up in the west of Sydney, but it is definitely not a name you come across if you have not stepped foot into the area. Added to that, most of the jobs that university graduates are going for are not in the West because our qualifications mean we can go and work in the CBDs of Sydney. So Phuong, on the advice of her older sister and her recruitment agent, decided to conduct a little social experiment: change her name from “Phuong” to “Pamela” on her resume, keeping the rest of her resume the same. And a funny thing happened, she got four call backs within the week. After three months of silence, a simple change of her ethnic name to a more common Western name landed her four interviews.

I was shocked and outraged. Phuong brushed off the situation and made a remark about the prevails of racism here in Sydney. She needed a job, so she was willing to change herself in this respect. The way I saw it, it was a major change to someone’s identity: to change your name to accommodate the market was something that made me deeply uncomfortable, and frankly angry, because this is Australia. It is a nation that prides itself on the triumphs of multiculturalism. But the way Phuong’s story has panned out demonstrated to me the limits of multiculturalism, especially in a competitive market, where it seems to have become a rather symbollic gesture as opposed to any meaningful support or inclusiveness for our migrant nation.

Phuong reassured me that this phenomena was not particular to Australia. In fact, there was a similar social experiment conducted in the US last year, where Jose Zamora dropped one letter in his name to Joe Zamora. And funnily enough, Jose got call backs and responses from the same jobs he applied for, but as Joe. This is ridiculous. The only thing that prevented businesses from engaging in Jose was his ethnic name. If this sort of discrimination happens at the recruitment phase, it is no wonder why diversity is so limited at the leadership positions of companies. A lot of the time, when these things are based in the US, us Australians like to patriotically distinguish ourselves from the Americans; because we are not America. We like to think of ourselves as more educated and more open-minded than Americans thanks to our excellent public school system (sorry Americans!). But unfortunately, I find it hard to distinguish ourselves from the US when it comes to the racial discrimination that is seemingly present in the recruitment phase.

I empathise with people who are shy about mispronouncing names of others. I too have had friends whose names I have mispronounced no thanks to my Australian accent and substandard French accent (sorry, Florence and Thibault!). But this has not stopped me from engaging with them. Because what is in a name anyway? Sure, it may give insight in the cultural background of the person, but it in no way reflects their skills and capacity to do well and excel in the position; it in no way reflects who they are as a person. To automatically dismiss a person based on their ethnic name is deeply unfair and in no way promotes a truly diverse, truly multicultural Australia.

*Changed for privacy purposes.

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