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Asian Last Names Lead To Fewer Job Interviews, Still

When it comes to job applications, not all names are treated equally.
Terry Vine
Getty Images
When it comes to job applications, not all names are treated equally.

What's in a name? A lot, according to a new study from researchers at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, both in Canada.

The study found that job applicants in Canada with Asian names — names of Indian, Pakistani or Chinese origin — were 28 percent less likely to get called for an interview compared to applicants with Anglo names, even when all the qualifications were the same. Researchers used data from a previous study conducted in 2011 where they sent out 12,910 fictitious resumes in response to 3,225 job postings. The previous study, also in Canada, similarly found that applicants with Anglo first names and Asian last names didn't fare much better than applicants with Asian first and last names.

"Some people still believe that minorities have an advantage," said one of the study authors, Jeffrey Reitz, a sociologist at the University of Toronto. "These studies are important to challenge that and show that not only is this kind of discrimination happening, but it's quite systemic."

Reitz, who completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States and has conducted numerous studies comparing race relations in the two North American countries, says this kind of discrimination is prevalent in the U.S. as well. "It's a very intense belief that we're a multicultural country in the way that the U.S. is not. But it's not terribly different in the two countries," said Reitz.

A two-year study published in the Administrative Science Quarterly Journal found that Asian job candidates in the U.S. were almost twice as likely to receive a call back if they whitened their resumes by changing their names and excluding race-based honors and organizations. (The same was true for African-American candidates).

Last year, a young Asian-American named Tiffany Trieu who applied for a graphic design position received a letter from the president of the studio denying her the job because "we've hired so many foreign nationals that it seems time for us to hire an American, or be unfair." Trieu was born in the United States.

In the same year, the U.S. Department of Labor filed an administrative lawsuit against Palantir Technologies alleging that the data mining startup systematically discriminated against Asian job applicants. The case claimed that while 77 percent of applicants for several engineering positions were Asian, less than 15 percent of the people hired were Asian. Palantir has denied these allegations of discrimination and the case is still pending.

The kind of discrimination described in the study often goes unnoticed because statistics often portray Asian-Americans as doing quite well — one of the best educated, highest income racial groups in the United States. But such statistics belie the fact that they're still not treated equally in comparison to their white counterparts. What's more, data on Asian-Americans is rarely broken up sufficiently so that it differentiates between Cambodian-Americans and Korean-Americans. That level of generalization can skew perceptions of how parts of the population are doing in certain regards.

Reitz said that when researchers of the studies cited above asked employers to explain why they called fewer Asian applicants, they usually received a response along the lines of, "Well, you see an Asian name and you know that language problems are going to be there."

For many Asian-Americans, this kind of discrimination means that the pressure to change their names and shed the perpetual foreigner stereotype is strong. In 2009, Texas state representative Betty Brown suggested during House testimony that all Chinese-Americans change their names to ones "we could deal with more readily here." But for many, those Asian names given at birth hold a lot of meaning. As Quartz writer Zheping Huang wrote, "This is the only name that I feel I belong to."

is an award-winning science journalist and multimedia producer. Follow her @americanhaiku.

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