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


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