The Nameless Blog

*Written by Fernando Fernández

Parents spend a lot of time thinking about the “right” name to give to their children. But, to what extent do names influence our daily lives? Does our economic welfare depend on them? Can names have an impact on a student’s academic performance?

Several studies have shown that there exists a relationship between one’s name and finding success in the labor market. In 2004, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan conducted a field experiment in Boston and Chicago in which they sent fake CVs to job posts advertised in newspapers from both cities, to investigate whether applicants with “black-sounding” names (i.e, Jamal Jones) get fewer callbacks than candidates with “white-sounding” names (i.e, Greg Baker). The only difference between the CVs was the name of the applicant, everything else (education, job experience, etc.) remained the same. The authors found that Gregs received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than Jamals.

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More recently, Costanza Biavaschi, Corrado Giulietti and Zahra Siddique analyzed whether immigrants that changed their names upon arrival in the United States in the early 20th century got better jobs. Put simply, they compared Giovannis who switched their name to “John” to individuals who decided to stick to the Italian version and found that the former got better jobs than the latter: Someone named “John” would make 14 percent more than someone named “Giovanni”.

What does the evidence from Latin America show us? Economists Alejandro Gaviria, Carlos Medina and María Palau used data from Colombia and estimated that individuals with unusual first names earned 10 percent less than their counterparts.  Furthermore, they found that the wage gap is larger among highly educated individuals than among less-educated workers.

But, can these disparities appear earlier in life, way before individuals enter the labor market? Can a child’s name put him or her at a disadvantage in, say, primary school? In a joint research project with Rosamaria Dasso, we are studying whether students with less common names obtain lower scores. Specifically, we used data from a national standardized test’s Math scores taken by all 2nd graders (around 7 and 8 years old) in Lima between 2007 and 2012. For the purposes of this project we included a sample of about 730, 000 students.

How do we determine whether a student’s name is unusual or not? For each gender, we concluded that a student has an unusual name if, at most, 10 students share the same name.  In the table below (Table 1) we show the most and least frequent names for girls and boys in Lima. “Maria” and “Jose” are the most popular names for each gender respectively while “Drixy” and “Anyelino” only appeared once each in our list of names.

Table 1: Most and Least frequent names among 2nd grade students in Lima, 2007-2012

Most frequent

Least frequent

Girls

Boys

Girls

Boys

MARIA JOSE DRIXY ANYELINO
LUZ LUIS JASMELY BEAVER
ANA JUAN JESARELLA GHAMPIER
RUTH CARLOS RAYCELL HAIRY
ANDREA DIEGO RENELMA JHOBERLIN
DIANA JOHN RHANDU KALIMAN
MILAGROS JESUS STHEYCY NILSERIK
ROSA JORGE SUDDENLY RILOVER
ANGIE KEVIN SVENKA VIBALDI
FLOR MIGUEL TACHIRA VIETNAM

So, who does better in school, Luz or Jasmely; Luis or Beaver? When we compare students within the same school, our estimates suggest that female students with unusual names are 4 percent less likely to obtain a satisfactory Math score. Amongst boys the effects are even more pronounced: male students with unusual names are 7 percent less likely to achieve satisfactory results on the test than other students. Interestingly, these learning gaps are larger in private schools than in public institutions.

Do these estimates show that names per se matter, or are they taking into account other factors? Are parents right when they worry about naming their children in a certain way?  As suggested by recent studies, parents who name their daughter “Ana” are likely to differ in status from those who name their kid “Jesarella”; Ana’s parents being more affluent and educated. Therefore, even though Ana and Jesarella attend the same school, it could be that disparities found in test scores may also be attributed to the fact that Ana and Jesarella have different family backgrounds, and not just to the names they were given at birth.

In order to verify whether differences in the family’s background are driving differences in test scores, we compared the academic performance of siblings attending the same school but taking the exam in different years (a similar approach was adopted by David Figlio when studying black-white test gaps in Florida). In other words, we compared the performance of a student with an unusual name such as “Jesarella” to her sister Ana. By doing so we were able to maintain a comparable socio-economic status for both students.

By eliminating economic disparities from the equation the test score gap disappears in most cases, and it only remains significant among boys in private schools.

Our results suggest that names per se do not have a significant impact on the student’s academic performance. Why then do they seem to be relevant in the labor market? It is likely that potential employers do not care for names per se either, but they might be using the applicant’s name to deduce the socio-economic background of the parents as they believe this, and not names, can in fact determine an  individual’s educational level and skills. Therefore, unlike name-giving, there are other matters that should get more attention from parents: Are you spending enough time with your children? Is your family environment helping your kids to develop their skills? Are you sending your children to the right school? When was the last time you spoke to your child’s teacher?

Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Mariana Alfonso, Suzanne Duryea, Hugo Ñopo, and Norbert Schady for their comments on this research project. Also, I thank Katherina Hruskovec for her useful suggestions on previous versions of this post.

*Fernando Fernández is a research fellow at the IDB’s Education Division. He is currently involved in projects about teacher policies in Peru and Chile.

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