Say my name…

Nigerian Names

The African culture is deeply rooted in tradition and this is especially evident in the naming of children. In my culture, a name is not just what you’re called, it is a benediction from the person naming you, a prayer of hope for your future and a proud identifier from your tribe. I’ve got four names (excluding my surname) and only two of these names made it to my passport, Toritseju Mavis. My late grandad named me Toritseju (pronounced to-ri-shé-ju), meaning “God’s timing is the best”. Mum named me Mavis because I was born in May and she liked the sound of it. 

Growing up in Nigeria I was called by my first name by everyone, shortened to Toju or Tj. I was never called Mavis and the only time I saw that name was in my passport and the signage for my mum’s business named after my sister and I. After I moved to the UK for post graduate studies, I was happily Toju until it was time to start applying for jobs.

I remember applying for jobs after graduation and an encounter at a recruitment fair had a lasting impact on me. A black woman I met at the recruitment fair advised me to only use my middle name when applying for jobs as it would increase my chances of getting to the interview stage. I thought it was bonkers at first, but speaking to lots of other older friends from various multicultural groups, I was told the same thing.

I heard stories of people applying for jobs with very African sounding names and only getting invited for interviews when an English name was used.

That was all it took to conveniently drop off my first name from my CV. Nearly twenty years on, I cringe when I think of how quickly I lost a part of my identity. I lost a part of me because of my naivety then, anxiety around getting a job and eagerness to be as ethnically unambiguous as I could muster (that is, on paper at least). 

My story is not unique. I’ve heard similar stories from other first generation immigrants from black and minority ethnic groups. People like myself who lose a part of their identity to fit in and to get a shot at interviews and this is wrong.

A famous study released in 2000 (by Harvard University’s Claudia Goldin and Princeton University’s Cecilia Rouse) found that blind orchestra auditions increased female auditioners’ odds by 50 percent. Applying the same principles, behavioural economists have shown that implicit biases influence recruitment outcomes and this has been tested using identical CV’s (resumes for my American readers) with white and black sounding names. These studies have shown that white sounding names have significantly more callbacks than identical CV’s with black sounding names. The bottom line is we all harbour varying levels of unconscious bias and this leads to a less diverse workforce than is desirable for our multicultural and diverse society. 

Research carried out by academics based at Oxford University in 2019, suggests that British citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds have to send on average, 60% more job applications to get a positive response from employers compared to their white counterparts.

A lot of people have called me in the last week asking “what can we do”. One simple thing business leaders must consider is a change in recruitment practices. Borrowing a leaf from behavioural economics, it is time we consider more innovative ways of recruitment such as name-blind recruitment, where CV’s are sifted based on merit and no consideration to names. This is already adopted in the UK Civil Service and needs to go wider than that.

It’s been refreshing to see how engaged people have been the past couple of weeks, working together to create a better future for the next generation. However, to make lasting change, we all need to speak up more and challenge the status quo. If you work in a company where the workforce is homogenous, ask your management what they are doing the promote diversity. An African woman reached out to me from Aberdeen a couple of weeks ago. She said she was the only black person working in an oil & gas company and for the first time, wondered why. 

Business leaders have to move away from seeing D&I as a nice to have, but rather, be intentional about how to promote D&I. Afterall, it impacts the bottom line and so makes business sense to promote diversity.

Back to the two decade-old question of what to call me, these days, I’m lots of things to different people. Mavis, Toju, Tj, Mum. I am proud of all these identifiers, but we should never have to sacrifice who we are for equality or social acceptance.

How can you help? Listen to our stories. Share your own stories. Understand. Speak up. Act. 

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