Is My Gendered Name Hurting My Job Prospects?


The life of a 20-something job seeker is anything but enjoyable. I currently reside in my parents’ basement, jog in the morning, send out resumes during the day, and then try to hang out with my friends as frugally as possible a few nights a week. Just like so many of my peers, I crave a job not just for a paycheck, but to give my day structure and have new goals beyond “find a job.” The response rate on my applications is about 8%, which is actually higher than average, but could be better.

When applying to jobs, I don’t think much about the fact that my field, foreign policy, is largely dominated by men. I can most certainly stand on my own credentials, and I’ve never had a problem keeping up with the boys. I do not want to be considered differently because I am a woman.

And then the news reminds me that, regardless of my wishes, I am.

In a recent blog post, titled “How I Discovered Gender Discrimination,” and its follow-up, “The Epilogue to How I Discovered Gender Discrimination,” Kim O’Grady details how in the 1990s, when he was a job applicant in a booming economy, he had trouble getting employed because of his first name. He writes,

My first name is Kim. Technically its gender neutral but my experience showed that most people’s default setting in the absence of any other clues is to assume Kim is a women’s name… And nothing else on my CV identified me as male. At first I thought I was being a little paranoid but engineering, trades, sales and management were all definitely male dominated industries…. It was like being hit on the head with a big sheet of unbreakable glass ceiling… I made one change that day. I put Mr in front of my name on my CV. It looked a little too formal for my liking but I got an interview for the very next job I applied for. And the one after that. It all happened in a fortnight.

Editor’s note: bolding mine.

Okay, this happened in the 90s. Maybe things have gotten better? But just in the past three years, we’re reminded over and over and over again that if you are female, you’re less likely to get the job, particularly in male-dominated fields.

In my university class, there were an equal number of female-to-male students. It’s not like women aren’t interested in entering the foreign policy field (or tech, or science). It may just be harder for us to get a job. This hiring problem is different than the wage gap because the priorities of women and men are about the same here: get hired. I would call this classic gender discrimination.

So what can be done? I went over to Reddit and asked if I should use the gender-neutral nickname for Rachel: Ray. While the response was dismal, one recruiter said to “go with the initials R instead of Ray.” Does R. Burger really stand a better chance in the job market than Rachel?

The recruiter also added, “I know it doesn’t mean anything but as a recruiter I have never let the gender of a candidate be a factor in if I should call them or not.” My bet is that no good recruiter would intentionally bias their hiring practices with any intentional gender discrimination; it’s not in the best interest of the company their hiring for. It’s most likely subconscious. And if that’s the case, then R. Burger may very well stand a better chance.

  • Andrea Castillo

    Interesting thoughts, I smell a natural experiment in the works!

    Your links on gender discrimination are interesting. The Wired article seems like a bit of a stretch – the effect of subtle word choices in job listings on gender discrimination is probably positive but negligible. The article from Salon seems incomplete – I wonder if gender discrimination against traditionally “masculine” men applying to traditionally “feminine” roles (teacher, nurse, etc.) is comparable.

    The most interesting to me is the Scientific American piece. The survey design seems pretty tight on a quick glance and is consistent with other findings in the Harvard Implicit Association test. Damn our monkey brains.

    This got me thinking to a point that Thomas Sowell makes: while discrimination has unfortunately always been a factor in hiring and promotions, private institutions pay a higher price for the indulgence. This is why we have traditionally seen higher rates of discrimination in non-profit institutions: think universities, government, church groups, civil associations. This isn’t to say that discrimination doesn’t exist in private institutions, it just means their choice sets for discrimination are more constrained. Sowell’s data on race and outcomes bore out his suggestions. (Here’s an old Firing Line where he discusses, if you’re interested:

    Thinking about this made me wonder to what extent your employment troubles are related to this field’s position or relationship with non-profit institutions. I imagine that many employment opportunities in international relations are either in governments or NGOs that work closely with governments. The cost of discriminating for these groups, then, might be lower. Do you think this could be a factor?

    I wish you the best of luck, whether as R or as Rachel!

    • Arnold

      Quick nit-pick, this would be a field experiment, not a natural experiment. /poliscimode

      That being said, there’s a well-developed literature on doing this with race. They’ll send letters to landlords, employers, and even members of Congress with “white-sounding names” and “black-sounding names” and observe any number of differences between people’s reactions. Worth a read.

      The other note is that orchestras have done blind auditions as a way of removing gender bias, and it was shown to be successful:

  • I’m eager to hear an update on your field experiment, when you get a chance.

    FWIW, as a white male whose opinion is automatically disqualified on such matters, I think it’s dangerous to go down the “blame it on gender/race” road. I often don’t get the interview/job I wanted either, and since I can’t blame it on anything but myself, it forces me to be more deeply reflective, which is better for me in the long run. If you blame your lack of interview/job on uncontrollables (i.e. gender/race), you won’t reflect as deeply as if you search urgently for controllables.