What’s in a name?

What you can do to enhance your DE&I efforts through names.

That’s My Name's Maya Welford explains why names are such an important part of one’s identity, how getting names right can be an easy to show respect and what you can do to enhance your DE&I efforts through names.

A name is way more than a combination of letters. Getting names right can be an easy way to show respect. Getting them wrong can contribute to exclusion, microaggressions and disengagement. Many people experience name mispronunciation. While getting a name wrong the first time is understandable, it becomes an issue when it has been corrected, ignored, and is persistent. Mispronouncing a name due to a lack of care or respect for the individual is a form of microaggression, which ultimately contributes to feelings of exclusion within society or the workplace. I’ve personally experienced name mispronunciation, which contributed to me starting the podcast and movement, That’s My Name.

I was inspired to create That’s My Name due to my own personal experiences with my name as well as a series of conversations I had with people in a short space of time about names. My full name, Maya Mitsuko September Welford, pays homage to my Japanese grandma and provides an insight into the month I was born in. I went through a phase aged around 7 where I wanted to change my first name, to a very standard English name - this was a reflection of mockery towards my Japanese side. As mentioned, my name is persistently mispronounced and in its full sense, sometimes a source of confusion. I love my name, and also love hearing about other people’s name stories!

That’s My Name explores name-related stories from across the world, covering experiences from people from all walks of life. It also showcases naming traditions. Across the globe, countries and cultures have different naming traditions. From the Akan community in Ghana who name children after the day of the week they were born and the order in which they were born, relative to their siblings, to parents in East Asia, such as Taiwan and China, choosing names based on their aspirations for the child.

Names are enriched with meaning, are part of one’s identity and hold such importance.

For example, for the trans community, calling someone by the name they’ve chosen for themselves signals acceptance. For someone thinking about transitioning and still using their birth name, it can be jarring and a reminder that their true identity doesn’t align with how they are perceived nor how they are showing up in the world. This was the case with my guest, August, a trans man who chose his name given how important August 2021 was to him.

Cognitive bias exists - they’re what make us human.

These biases become an issue when assumptions are made about someone because of their name. For example, take the name Princess - what thoughts come to mind about this person? Can you confidently say you’d give this person a job interview for a role? How about someone with the name John? I was shocked to hear about the experiences of one of my guests, Princess, and how she only started to get job interviews and job offers after changing her name on her CV. After some further research, I found that this is an often replicated finding: Researchers from the GEMM Project (Oxford University) sent 3,200 fake job applications for both manual and non-manual jobs. All of the fictitious candidates were British citizens, or had moved to the UK by the age of six, and had identical CVs, covering letters and years of experience. The only factor that differed across applications was the applicant's name, which they based on their ethnic background. The research found:

​​While 24% of white British applicants received a call back from UK employers, only 15% of ethnic minority applicants did.

Compared to White British applicants, people of:

  • Pakistani heritage had to make 70% more applications
  • Nigerian and South Asian heritage 80% more applications
  • Middle Eastern and north African heritage 90% more applications

There are some easy ways you can enhance your DE&I efforts through names:

  • Break name-related bias by considering the names used in advertising. How can you include names from different backgrounds, and ensure they’re not used to reinforce stereotypes or a source of mockery?
  • Run a campaign on names - companies like Unilever, Goldman Sachs and Race Equality have held campaigns encouraging people to share their name-related stories. Partner up with That’s My Name to develop a campaign
  • Everyone has at least one name, use this to bring people together to think about how to better include one another - discussing names can be a way to encourage people from different groups to share more about their cultural background
  • Get names right - whether that’s by simply asking ‘How do I pronounce your name?’ and repeating it a few times until you get it right, or taking an extra second to check the spelling is right when you’re sending that email

What’s your name?

Maya Welford is a multi-award-winning professional, currently working as Behavioural Finance Specialist at Barclays. Maya has a BSc Psychology degree from King’s College London, and also holds a degree in MSc Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability. Maya is an advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion both within the workplace and more broadly within society. Maya is also a Coach, where she empowers others to achieve their ambitions, and podcast host and founder of ‘Thats’s My Name’, where she explores name-related stories from individuals globally.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 01 May 2024