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

Traffic heading south on Highway 17 and looking to turn left onto Beacon Avenue wait for the light to turn Tuesday morning. A report finds the intersection is experiencing “failing levels of service” for certain movements during the morning peak hours as well as the afternoon peak hours. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Major Sidney intersection already deficient predicted to get worse

New report also finds area’s pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in need of improvement

An employee at Sidney’s Thrifty Foods tested positive for COVID-19, the parent company Sobeys posted on its website Wednesday. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
COVID-19 case reported at Sidney grocery store

Thrifty Foods employee last worked at the store April 3

The artist rendered Sadie with a few more ribs and wrinkles than she had in real life, and with the fading of her paint she looks a little sad. But real-life Sadie was an energetic hunting dog, her owner Cliff Curtis said. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
Dog sculpture at Glen Lake Park based off a happy hunting hound

Sadie the dog was not as old as the concrete art looks almost 20 years later

The Latoria South section of the Royal Bay development in Colwood could include a new long-term care facility. (Black Press Media file photo)
Colwood’s Royal Bay could be home to new long-term care facilities

Capital Regional Hospital District board approves $8M land purchase for purpose

Construction of the next phase of Dockside Green, which will include three condo buildings, is now underway, Bosa Developments announced April 9. (Bosa Developments)
Construction underway, homes for sale at Victoria’s Dockside Green

Bosa Developments took over the site from Vancity in 2017

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you have a plan in place in the event of a tsunami?

Tsunamis have claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people between 1998… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 13

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Vancouver police say eight people were arrested Wednesday after anti-pipeline protesters blocked off both the entrances and exits to two buildings in the downtown core. (Instagram/Qtcatspictureclub)
8 people arrested after anti-pipeline protestors chain themselves to Vancouver buildings

Cst. Tania Visintin said demonstrators caused ‘a serious safety hazard’ downtown for hours Wednesday

Jamie Coutts recorded a man following her around downtown Vancouver for a half-hour on Wednesday, March 18. (Instagram screenshot/Iammjammbamm)
Man charged in alleged high-profile Vancouver stalking case that went viral online

Man faces five other charges including criminal harassment and assault with a weapon

A sea lion swims past the window of an empty viewing area Vancouver Aquarium is pictured Thursday, September 10, 2020. The Vancouver Aquarium has had to close its doors to the public due to the lack of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
U.S.-based theme park company buys Vancouver Aquarium

Aquarium had to shut its doors in September due to COVID pandemic

Legendary broadcaster Bernie Pascall is among in the Class of 2021 to be inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. (PQB News file photo)
Island broadcasting legend Bernie Pascall named to Canadian Football Hall of Fame

Pascall named by Football Reporters of Canada as inductee in the 2021 class in the media category

A man wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
COVID-19 spike in B.C. could overwhelm B.C. hospitals: modelling group

There are 397 people are in hospital due to the virus, surpassing a previous high of 374 seen in December

Most Read