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

Supporters gather outside GraceLife Church near Edmonton, Alta., on Sunday, April 11, 2021. The church has been fenced off by police and Alberta Health Services in violation of COVID-19 rules. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Hundreds gather to support Alberta church shut down for ignoring COVID-19 orders

GraceLife Church and its pastor, are charged for holding services that break health restrictions

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta identifies 1,183 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

50.5% of all active cases are variants of concern

File photo
A man walks into a Cargill meat processing factory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Alberta meat plant, site of COVID-19 outbreak last year, to get vaccination clinics

Nearly half of the 2,200 workers at the Cargill facility contracted the novel coronavirus and two employees died last April

Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, left, Grand Chief Arthur Noskey, centre and Chief Aaron Young during a meeting with First Nations Chiefs and Grand Chiefs in Edmonton. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta must retract Forest Act before it becomes law: Treaty 8 grand chief

‘We are asking (the government) to pull this back and consult with us,’ says Arthur Noskey of Treaty 8 First Nations

A cross made out of hockey sticks at a makeshift memorial is silhouetted against the setting sun at the intersection of a fatal bus crash near Tisdale, Sask., on Monday, April, 9, 2018. A virtual tribute is planned to mark the third anniversary of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
VIDEO: Humboldt Broncos team to be honoured on third anniversary of fatal bus crash

16 people died and 13 were injured when a semi-trailer ran a stop sign into the path of the hockey team’s bus

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

Vancouver’s park board general manager issued a new order Friday restricting tents and other temporary structures from being set up in Strathcona Park after April 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver park board issues order to restrict tents in Strathcona Park

The order issued Friday restricted tents and other temporary structures from being set up after April 30

Stettler’s own Renegade Station is kicking off the spring season with a brand new single - to be released April 9th. (Photo submitted)
A brand new single is on the way from Stettler-based band Renegade Station

Free Free Free hits all streaming platforms on April 9th

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau waits for a virtual meeting to begin with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ottawa, Friday February 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Ottawa mulls exempting more workers from Canada-U.S. border shutdown: Garneau

Canada-U.S. border has been closed to people travelling for vacations and other non-essential visits since March 2020

A worker smooths concrete at a construction site in Toronto on January 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
Economy adds 303,000 jobs in March, unemployment rate falls: Statistics Canada

Figure released this morning outpaced the 259,000 gain seen in February

FILE - This file photo dated July 10, 1947 shows the official photograph of Britain’s Princess Elizabeth and her fiance, Lieut. Philip Mountbatten in London. Buckingham Palace says Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, has died aged 99. (AP Photo/File)
Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, dies at 99

Philip spent a month in hospital earlier this year before being released on March 16

Campbell River city council will continue its 2020 policy of waiving late fees and NSFs. (Mirror File photo)
53% of Canadians teetering the brink of insolvency: survey

A majority of Canadians admit they’re just $200 away from not being able to pay their monthly bills

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney listens as the 2021 budget is delivered in Edmonton Alta, on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Kenney faces criticism from doctors, his own caucus, over new COVID-19 health rules

Alberta now has more than 10,000 active cases, about 43 per cent are variants

Most Read