When my first-grade teacher paused, I knew my name was next on the attendance list: the silence said it all. Since then, I have had many similar experiences. My given name is Romanian, with biblical origins and derived from the male ‘Ilie’. My middle name is quite common in Romania, and my family name ends in the traditional ‘u’. All remain unpronounceable to many who did not grow up in the same environment as I did.
I was three years old when my parents left everything except me behind in Romania, in search of more opportunities in the United States. While growing up, I learnt that acceptance in a community was not a given.
And I am not the only one. According to the US National Science Foundation, nearly one-half of US postdocs and one-third of faculty members in science and engineering were born in other countries. Many immigrant scientists have experienced discrimination in various forms — including poor reactions to their supposedly hard-to-pronounce names.
A number of my peers have shared experiences, to me personally as well as on social media, of how their names have had negative impacts on their career progression. Among other things, they receive fewer invitations to give presentations or teach, and fewer job offers than do colleagues whose names are perceived as ‘neutral’. Such accounts echo research1 from Stanford University in California and the University of Toronto, Canada, which found that when job applicants from minority ethnic communities altered their names and experiences on their CVs to mask their ethnic origins, they were significantly more likely to progress in the interview process. Too often, immigrants face discrimination simply because their names are unrecognizable or different in the countries where they live.
Our names are extensions of our identities and they are often rooted in our native languages and cultures. Mine represents a web of language, religion and family: I was named after previous generations of relatives. I think we should honour our names and not feel ashamed of or distanced from them. To this end, and on the basis of my own experiences, here are some personal reflections and general guidelines for helping others to become comfortable with your name, and for handling the pronunciation of names that are unfamiliar to you. I hope that everyone will genuinely try to implement them. The points are linked by a central tenet of mutual respect and understanding, and are aimed at creating a more welcoming and open scientific environment.
What to do for your name
Make it easier for yourself and others. If you are landing in a new environment for a position, presentation or meeting, and especially if you’ve encountered issues with the pronunciation of your name in the past, provide a written, phonetic spelling of your name: perhaps in an e-mail signature, on your LinkedIn profile, on your name tag or below your name on your CV.
I find annotating my CV particularly useful. When they see “Ilinca [ee-lean-ka]”, recruiters and mentors correctly follow the guidance. It can even lead to interesting conversations about my background: my parents’ unwavering resilience and hope of starting anew across an ocean; the challenges I faced growing up; and my unabated connection to my native culture.
Stay true to yourself. If your name is being mispronounced, don’t feel pressured to remain quiet and avoid awkward corrections, but instead gently and politely offer the right pronunciation. People have often asked me if I have a nickname or if they could just call me something else — “something easier” — but I’ve learnt to hold my ground by saying, “I would prefer to be called [ee-lean-ka] as this carries great meaning for me.” You shouldn’t have to change your name to something more westernized to fit in — your qualifications and strong work ethic should suffice.
What to do for other people’s names
Simply asking is the best practice. If you meet a scientist with a name that sounds unfamiliar, attempt to say it, but add, “I am not sure if I am pronouncing your name correctly. How would you like me to say it?” And ask whether this is what they prefer to be called. Remaining humble and admitting your difficulties frankly shows that you are interested in making the effort to pronounce someone’s name correctly.
Practice makes perfect. When someone tells you the correct way to pronounce a name, listen. Repeat it, take note and try to create a way to remember it for next time. Just as you wouldn’t expect an experiment to work seamlessly on the first try, don’t expect to get every name correct right away! Practise on your own time to ensure that you have the correct pronunciation. But don’t over-practise in front of the person in question — it’s unpleasant having your name garbled back at you many times in an attempt to be friendly, even if we appreciate the attempt.
Take appropriate action if you have mispronounced a peer’s name. Remember that mistakes are part of human nature: if you are made aware that you have mispronounced someone’s name, simply apologize and make an effort to correct it. Try not to dwell on the mistake — and don’t justify why you didn’t pronounce it correctly.
It would be remiss of me to not mention that I’ve mispronounced others’ names. After apologizing, I embrace it as a friendly reminder of the multiculturalism of science, technology, engineering and medicine, and the power of collaboration.
Be a model and an active bystander. If you witness someone else butchering a name, step in and correct them politely. This takes the burden of correction off the person whose name it is. I will always remember a lab-mate who did this for me early in my career, and I continuously try to pay it forward by doing the same for others.
Pave the way. If you’ve hired someone whose name might not be familiar to others in your institution, include phonetic pronunciation in your introductory e-mail to the team, to help ease the transition. If you are taking part in a meeting and introducing your colleague, ask beforehand, to ensure that you pronounce their name correctly in front of others.
I am no longer that girl who stayed quiet for years, enduring the mispronunciation of her name. As a PhD student surrounded and mentored by other immigrant women in science, I now feel empowered to speak up for myself and am proud of my name — one that is undeniably embedded in my cultural identity, upbringing and heritage. I have fought my own battle by following these steps, which has led to a more harmonious and inclusive work environment, and more collaborative science. Hopefully, these suggestions and tips will improve your and your colleagues’ work environment.
We should all embrace and celebrate each of our names.