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

B.C's COVID-19 dashboard shows the peaks and valleys of cases prior to the record daily report of 132 on April 9, 2021. (Dashboard image)
Interior Health has record day of COVID-19 cases

132 cases reported Friday, April 9, more deaths in Vernon hospital outbreak

(Black Press files)
Chief Civilian Director Ronald J. McDonald, QC reviewed the evidence and determined reasonable grounds exist to believe in officer may have committed offenses. (Black Press files)
Crown considering charges against Williams Lake Mountie after high-speed pursuit: police watchdog

IIO says the man, who was arrested, sustained serious but not life-threatening injuries from the incident

Sarah Smith is a bereavement worker with 100 Mile Hospice. (Kelly Sinoski - 100 Mile Free Press).
‘Grief never goes away’: Hospice seeks to add programs

Growing demand for bereavement services in the South Cariboo region.

Abstract Aspens by Monika Paterson.
Photography exhibits all Shades of Nature

Parkside Gallery features local art

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

A large illuminated heart was installed on the roof of the Vernon Jubilee Hospital May 1, 2020. (VJH Foundation photo)
Three deaths linked to COVID-19 outbreak in Vernon hospital

Interior Health reports two additional deaths at VJH

Robinson Russ, 37, was fatally stabbed on April 4, according to a statement from police. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver police name victim following city’s fourth homicide of 2021

Robinson Russ, 37, was fatally stabbed Sunday in the Downtown Eastside

A man wears a face mask past the emergency department of the Vancouver General Hospital. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
Calls for stricter action in B.C. as COVID-19 variants projected to climb

Jens von Bergmann says the province has taken a ‘wait and see’ approach when early action is needed

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

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning says the players who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 are recovering and the team still intends to play a 56-game season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Canucks players ‘mostly on the other side’ of COVID outbreak: general manager

The athletes have had a “whole range” of COVID-19 symptoms, said team physician Dr. Jim Bovard, but no one has needed to be hospitalized

Police are investigating after a man was shot Thursday, April 8 while sitting in a car in Vancouver. (Black Press files)
Man shot in Vancouver while sitting in a parked car: police

The victim is currently in critical condition. Police say no arrests have been made.

Teachers from SD42 and other districts in the Lower Mainland flocked to Surrey on Tuesday in the hopes of getting a COVID-19 vaccine. (Sheelagh Brothers/Twitter)
Don’t line up for vaccines unless asked to come, Dr. Bonnie Henry warns

Social media post shows teachers lining up outside of Surrey clinic for leftover doses

Most Read