Unfortunately, for many people inherent characteristics play a vital role in securing jobs. Despite attempts by companies to reduce biases derived from innate characteristics, many studies have documented the impacts of gender, height, or ethnicity in determining success. In Magnet we have delved into it throughout several articles: here, here or here.
Now, various investigations have begun to explore other sources of prejudice, in particular, our last names. Do your initials affect our future opportunities?
The study. In a study published in 2017, two researchers at the University of Colorado set out to determine the impact surnames had on a variety of outcomes, including the likelihood of graduating from college and the prestige of early jobs. Analyzing a sample of 3,281 Wisconsin men surveyed between 1957 and 2011, they assigned ranges to individuals based on last names, with an individual whose last name begins with ‘A’ receives a rank of one, and an individual whose last name begins with ‘Z’ received a rank of 26.
They concluded that the “alphabetical rank of the initial of the last name has significant and negative effects on results in high school, educational level and first experiences in the labor market.” In other words, people with last names beginning with letters lower in the alphabet were much less likely to attend college and were often offered less prestigious job opportunities, a phenomenon they consider “literacy.”
Why? While the study authors do not offer an explicit reason for literacy, they state that many of the early job opportunities are filled through individuals or institutions that automatically rank their candidates alphabetically, so people with surnames of higher rank they are offered fewer opportunities. Furthermore, they hypothesize that many of the discrepancies arise from schools using alphabetical lists.
“Our best guess is that the experience of being at the end… You can’t wait to be called, and if so, you are shocked and unprepared. The accumulation of these types of experiences throughout childhood can have some kind of conditioning effect on how an adult behaves ”, they affirmed. However, all is not lost for people with higher-ranking surnames.
Discrimination. While the Alvarezes and the Castles of the world received thunderous applause at the graduation ceremony, we, the inhabitants of the last 26, were relegated to weary applause for our diplomas, due to an arbitrary order of linguistic symbols established by a group of Romans of the first century. Breaking up against this kind of alphabetical hierarchy may seem like superficial and out of place teenage angst, but it turns out there is a decent amount of research showing that this is not a trivial topic.
The best colleges are less likely to accept you. A 2010 study in the journal Economics of Education Review examined the relationship between the alphabetical position of a student’s name and the student’s odds of being admitted to a competitive school. The study found that the earlier your name is in the alphabet, the more likely you are to be admitted, probably because the applications are arranged alphabetically.
Do you want to be a teacher? Worst race. A 2006 Stanford-CalTech study found that faculty members “with previous last initials are significantly more likely to receive tenure in the top 10 economics departments.” One possible reason? In economics and political science, the convention is that article and paper co-authors are listed in alphabetical order. Keep that in mind the next time you put names in that group project.
Do you want to be a politician? Fewer voters. The effect is also transferred to the political realm. A magazine study Public Opinion Quarterly found that the order of names has the effect of “always favoring the candidates listed first” by about 2.5%, and many ballots are arranged alphabetically. So good luck trying to run for office so you can repair this broken card system.
In a 2007 survey, the Telegraph newspaper suggested that readers whose last names began with letters at the beginning of the alphabet rated themselves significantly more successful than those with last names at the end of the alphabet. So don’t blame your parents for giving you that name; blame your ancestors for adopting that last name in the first place. And the next time society tells you to line up alphabetically, fight the power by promoting alphabetical anarchy.