Thursday, March 12, 2009

What's in a name? Perhaps your income.

ResearchBlogging.orgWould a rose by any other name smell just as sweet? Maybe, but it might cost less. It turns out a name might be more important than we'd like to think - it might affect how much you get paid. Swedish scientists have found that simply changing your name from a foreign-sounding one to one a little more local (at least in Sweden) can boost your earnings by an average 8.2%.

It's possible that employers discriminate between employees in a whole host of ways. In America, women earn something around $0.80 for ever $1.00 men earn. Studies have found that dressing a certain way or even wearing perfume can affect your chances of getting called back after an interview or hired. But what about just your name?

In Sweden, they have a special system when it comes to surnames. There's no 'Talula does the Hula from Hawaii' there - you can't just do whatever you want. To change your name, it has to be one of two ways. The first, and easiest, is marriage. But if you're just hoping to conform, you have to petition to get your name changed to a Swedish-sounding surname. Because they want to preserve the cultural sound of their native language, they're very particular about exactly which names they allow and which ones they don't. You can't use one that already exists unless you can prove lineage, and you can't pick one that isn't in line with Swedish linguistic custom - so it's a pretty strict system.

The best part, for researchers anyhow, is that they have detailed records of name changes. On top of that, they have detailed financial records for every citizen. So the researchers were able to follow native-sounding and foreign-named people before, during, and after a name change to see how their income was affected by simply switching what they're called.

The results, published in The Journal of Labor Economics, are astounding. They found that sounding more local increased a person's earning by an average 8.2% after one year when compared to those who changed their names from local to local or from foreign to foreign. The average income was 130,000 SEK (or about $14,400 US), so that means earning about $1,200 more a year just for sounding like a native.

These data strongly suggest that there is an unconscious (or even conscious) discrimination in the workplace against those who sound "foreign." The jump was particularly high for men who went from an Asian, African, or Slavic sounding name. Simply sounding like an outsider might have a strong, negative impact on your pay. I would bet that this might be even more true in America, though without the strict Swedish naming system and income info it'll be harder for scientists to show this effect.

Findings like these might have strong implications for employers and employees seeking equal treatment. How do we ensure that people are hired and paid in a fair and equal manner for their experience and qualifications? The debate is still out there. Certainly there are ideas like affirmative action which seek to level the playing field. But in my mind, I'm guessing that perfect equality is nigh impossible. People are hard-wired to notice, internalize, and judge based on their local cultural customs. Getting rid of such biases is going to prove truly difficult. Close enough to equal might be the best we can hope for.

Mahmood Arai, Peter Skogman Thoursie (2009). Renouncing Personal Names: An Empirical Examination of Surname Change and Earnings Journal of Labor Economics, 27 (1), 127-147 DOI: 10.1086/593964


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Maybe I should change my name to Gates?

Luke said...

Just stumbled on this from researchblogging.org; it is interesting, but also reads a bit like a 'spot the problems' statistics question.

I'd have thought that the two groups (people in Sweden who are changing their name to a local name, and people who are changing their name to a foreign name) would be pretty different groups in general. They are two pretty distinct actions; it might be that people who are changing their name to a Swedish-sounding one are doing so because they are entering into local society (making friends in a Swedish company, hanging out with Swedish friends), whereas those who change their name away may be people who feel distanced from society, perhaps because they are finding working in a Swedish company difficult. Those two types of people are going to have very different future employment prospects.

Either way, I would be careful drawing the conclusion that the name changing is causing the financial loss, rather than both the financial loss and the name change being caused by a social effect.

Tom Rees said...

Exactly. If you change your name from foreign to Swedish, it probably signals that you are pretty determined to get ahead in Swedish society, and will do what it take to achieve that.

Anonymous said...

illiannattle: in sweden you would have a very hard time changing your name. ;)

luke: The social effect you warn of I would guess is VERY low as I propose that the vast majority of people that are changing their names are doing so due to marriage; mainly wives taking their foreign husbands name as per tradition. The number of people changing their names for other reasons actually is quite low due to the difficulty of changing names as outlined above.

I have some personal experience of the Swedish naming conventions. In an attempt to circumvent the discrimination and give my children a choice in the future I tried and was unable to give my children my wifes swedish last name along with mine, eg "Björn Olsson White" (whereby "White" is my foreign name, "Olsson" my wifes swedish last name). This is because, according to the swedish naming convention rules Olsson would be used in a position of the name that is only allowed to have names of first name character. I received as well an even more preposterous explanation (in writing) that the reason for this rule is that it is believed people may be made fun of or discriminated for having such last names in first name places. yeah right.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, did you try/consider Olsson-White?
I suspect the blankspace was the problem. If I recall correctly, the government is a lot more anal about children's names than adults'. I mean, there were even at least a dozen or more adults that changed their name to Obi Wan Kenobi for the sake of a radio contest (the person who first sent in proof of having that as name would win 10000 SEK or so) last decade or something.
But yes, in Sweden (unlike e.g. Portugal) there is no tradition of multiple last names, i.e. independent words as last name. The last name is usually a single unbroken string, whether joined by a dash or not.

Magnus said...

I wonder if my name increases my odds of becoming commander of the Autobots after Optimus Prime dies.

Penguin collector: I keep the wounded... said...

I suspect it has more to do with an inherent desire in people to shun those who are different.

In the US we continue our discrimination by identifying ourselves in "color classifications" rather than human, as though they have meaning and have similarity based in reality.

Have you ever wondered how the classification of "hispanic" came to be? There is no single cultural background. And in truth much the same can said about all "color" classifications.

I can assure you that a chinese person doesn't see themselves as japanese or Korean, yet we classify "asian" as though they have commonality beyond visually similar (in US eyes only -- not in theirs).

Why do we do it? Seems ignorant to me.