Lawyer Janani Shanmuganathan is pictured in Toronto on Friday, March 26, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Lawyer Janani Shanmuganathan is pictured in Toronto on Friday, March 26, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

In inclusivity push, workers reject prods to allow mispronounced or ‘whitened’ names

Research suggests that ‘whitened’ names have historically made job candidates more likely to be hired

When Janani Shanmuganathan was in law school, she remembers hearing some misguided professional advice.

“You should take your husband’s name,” Shanmuganathan recalls someone telling her, because her own name was hard to pronounce. Her colleague speculated it would make it harder to get clients.

Shanmuganathan says she remembers being angered by the comment, not only because she was proud of her name, but because it is spelled phonetically — and she doesn’t mind helping people who ask her how it’s pronounced. Plus, she says, she wants up-and-coming lawyers to see Tamil women represented in the law community.

Shanmuganathan has indeed faced professional challenges over time. She says that it was not uncommon for a judge to refer to other lawyers by name, but refer to her only as “counsel,” and her racialized client as “the accused,” raising questions about differential treatment from clients and their families.

“There is something more dignified in a name,” says Shanmuganathan.

Research suggests that “whitened” names have historically made job candidates more likely to be hired. But as many employers claim to be changing course and trying to attract diverse talent, experts say companies must also do more to respect whatever name a worker chooses to identify with.

Shanmuganathan wrote about her experiences with her race, including being mistaken for the interpreter in court, in a publication sent out to other criminal lawyers. Her assessment — which described courts skirting around her name as one of many symptoms of bias in the legal system — resonated with people.

The Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers began a social media campaign to “make hearing Asian names more commonplace” and help lawyers who were being passed over for opportunities because someone else was uncomfortable with their name pronunciation. Several years ago, law firm Borden Ladner Gervais added a clickable blue megaphone buttons on its staff’s web pages that play a recording of each person pronouncing their name in hopes of levelling the playing field for incoming lawyers.The feature on BLG’s website came out of concern that when summer students joined the firm each year, senior lawyers would be more likely to reach out and assign work to the aspiring lawyers they could comfortably call by name, says Laleh Moshiri, national director, diversity and inclusion at the firm. While it’s far from the only answer to diversity and inclusion issues at the firm, the pronunciation tool shifted some of the onus of learning students’ names to the lawyers.

LinkedIn last year added a similar tool to its website, in an announcement that said “correct pronunciation is not just a common courtesy — it’s an important part of making a good first impression and creating an inclusive workplace.” A tool made by NameCoach is also used for MBA students at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says Sonia Kang, Canada research chair in identity, diversity and inclusion at the university.

Kang says that the pressure for people to “whiten” their names in many industries can stem from discrimination that begins as early as the hiring process. Resumes with whitened first names and extracurricular experiences led to more callbacks than the unwhitened resumes for both Black and Asian applicants, according to a paper Kang co-authored. Similar findings have been repeated in multiple studies.

“When I’m talking to hiring managers about this — put aside for a second discrimination, which we know exists, for sure. But some of the time, the reason that they might not call someone is because they don’t want to offend them by saying their name wrong,” says Kang. “It’s this kind of benevolent racism.”

Shanmuganathan says things have improved in the legal world, but the issue persists. Last month, Vancouver immigration lawyer Will Tao wrote an essay on how his work with immigrants and community organizers has reinforced to him how many Biblical names have roots in colonialism and, for Indigenous colleagues, the residential school system.

“I am in a profession where marketability, presentation, professionalism, and competency is everything. Why is Will Tao more competent and presentable than Wei Tao?” he wrote.

In a recent talk explaining her perspective as a woman in banking, Laurentian Bank chief executive Rania Llewellyn cited her name as one factor that has motivated her to raise diversity and inclusion expectations at her company.

“My first job in Canada with my degree from a Canadian university was working at Tim Hortons. My last name was not Llewellyn. It was very Middle Eastern. No one would even call me for an interview… inclusive hiring is really, really important,” said Llewellyn. “Nobody ever asked me about where I’m from anymore … When I introduce myself, I always say Rania, like Tanya, and all of a sudden people are like, ‘Ah.’”

Shanmuganathan says that she urges co-workers to refer to her and introduce her by name, so others get used to hearing it. Moshiri, meanwhile, says that she encourages her colleagues to write down phonetic spellings in their notes so they don’t forget name pronunciations.

Kang says that no one can be expected to know every name in the world — and she says asking for name pronunciations should be seen as normal, not awkward. At the same time, learning the sounds and spellings that crop up commonly in your line of work is a skill that will continue to be valuable in building relationships, says Kang.

Encouraging authenticity — whether that is a name a worker was given at birth or one they choose to identify with — can reap benefits for employers, says Kang.

“It’s just about having a choice, and not feeling pressured either way,” she says.

Anita Balakrishnan, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Labour

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Photo: pixabay.com
Morning Start: Why do dogs like squeaky toys?

Your morning start for Tuesday, April 20, 2021

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
211 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health over the weekend

Currently, there are 875 active cases of the virus in the region

A nurse prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. As of April 19, more than 230,000 doses have been administered across the Interior Health region. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
More than 230K doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered across Interior Health

A total of 220,216 first doses and 13,775 second doses have been given to residents across the B.C. Interior

A new non-profit after school program starts in Revelstoke. The Revelstoke Afterschool Society focuses on spending time outside. school (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
Columbia Basin Trust doles out funds for child care providers

Sixteen Revelstoke providers received money

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

Jasmyn Yakura’s 2004 Chevy Aveo ended up going off Cosens Bay Road Sunday, April 18, with her behind the wheel, and coming to rest down a steep cliff. Yakura suffered only minor injuries. She was helped back to the road by a friend travelling behind her when the car left the road. (Yakura family photo)
North Okanagan driver credits seatbelt with saving life

Jasmyn Yakura, 17, survived after car went off Cosens Bay Road over a cliff, flipping ‘five or six times or more’

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. The University of Victoria says Williams has resigned effective immediately. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
University of Victoria women’s rowing coach resigns by mutual agreement

Lawsuit filed last summer accused Barney Williams of verbal abuse

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Former B.C. premier Christy Clark. (Black Press Media files)
Former B.C. premier to testify at money laundering hearing today

Attorney General David Eby has been added to the witness list as well

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. to table budget that’s expected to deal with COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

Robinson released a fiscal update last December that said the impact of the pandemic on B.C.’s economy was uncertain

Paramedic Matthew Schlatter of Victoria is living a fuller life today due to the double lung transplant he received in 2019. He encourages B.C. residents to register as an organ donor and let their families know their wishes. (Instagram/Matthew Schlatter)
B.C. man living a full, active life after double-lung transplant

Matt Schlatter encourages people to register as an organ donor to help others live

(Photo by Mojpe/Pixabay)
Canadian kids extracting record amounts from Tooth Fairy

Our neighbours in the U.S. receive slightly less from Tooth Fairy visits

Most Read