Do you have an unconscious name bias?

by Michael Haberman on April 4, 2017 · 0 comments

Do we have biases against women or others based on their names?

In a post on March 6th, I talked about unconscious bias, something that all of us have. On March 10th, Jenna Amatulli, of the Huffington Post wrote about a man and a woman who exchanged emails signatures. The man was amazed by the change in reaction, attitude and tone that he was subjected to as a result of this change.

Purposeful or unconscious bias?

In the article the male employee found his ideas being rejected or he was just subjected to outright hostility. He did not understand the change in interactions with the client, until he noticed that he was using the wrong signature on his emails. So he and his female coworker tried a two week experiment. She had the most productive two weeks she had ever had and he was miserable for that two weeks. So what was going on?


There are a lot of potential reasons for this occurring. The obvious one is that there is a blatant bias against all women in the world of work and any email from a woman is automatically discounted. However, I think that is too broad based statement to make. Perhaps it depends on the industry that the woman works in. Certainly women in software or in finance may get discounted because of the male domination in those industries. I would wager that the same sort of bias doesn’t occur in the HR field, but I may be mistaken.

Twenty years ago women would use their initials rather than their given names in order to hide their sex, especially for positions that were considered “traditionally” male positions. So there is obviously bias against women, the question is whether it is a conscious bias or an unconscious bias. I think there may be much more of the latter than is suspected.

Not just sex related

I think the unconscious bias may extend to more than just sex. In a conversation the other day about names, I was in a group talking about the names that we had encountered in business. We were talking in terms of “why would parents do that to their children”, such as naming a male child Richard Johnson, knowing how that can be changed. I was thinking about that as I read this article. Do we have biases, personal or business, about how people are named? If you are hiring for a business position would you consider Happiness, Pistol, Subaru, or SierraLeone? Or, someone who has an unfortunate combination of names, you who have seen the movie Porky’s will understand that reference.

I think we have biases against people with quirky names, names that reflect cultures we are not familiar, names that are too trendy or, yes, female names. The important thing is to be aware that you have that bias and do something to counter act that bias.

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