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Zahra Siddique: What's in a name? - The name americanization of migrants – University of Reading

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  • What's in a name?

    Can it really change your outcome in life?

Zahra Siddique: What's in a name? - The name americanization of migrants

The importance of a name cannot be understated.

In almost every culture on Earth, a name serves as a maker of identity, and for most people the name they are given at birth is the only one they have for their entire life. But what if by changing your name, you could improve your career prospects and financial situation?

The name Americanization of migrants

In the 1920s, more than 30% of migrants who settled in New York City in the United States changed their names. Why did so many people choose to do this?

“They changed their names to impact their earning potential. Names are a marker of your ethnicity, so they mark you out as someone who belongs to a very specific ethnicity and that's something that could harm you in the labour market.”

Dr Zahra Siddique

Dr Zahra Siddique devised a joint research project with Dr Costanza Biavaschi and Dr Corrado Giulietti (Southampton) with the goal of finding out what happened to the labour market outcomes of people who changed their names to those more popular in the United States. Zahra's research background is in labour market inequality and discrimination, making this the ideal project for her to contribute her expertise.

The economic benefits of a name change in the early 20th century

Zahra's research found that migrants who settled in the US in the 1920s and "Americanized" their name earned at least 10% more on average than migrants who retained their given name. They did this by moving into occupations that paid more over time.

“We tried different statistical approaches, and every control you can think of, and continued to find that those who changed their names earned more. Given the statistical methods we have applied to this data we can conclude that the reason they earn more is because they switched their names.”

Dr Zahra Siddique

One of these approaches involved comparing, for example, two people called Giovanni who hold the same name at birth. Suppose only one of them "Americanizes" their name to "John".  Zahra and her colleagues were able to show that this person then went on to earn more money, despite otherwise looking very similar to the Giovanni who did not change his name to John. It also strongly suggests that migrants were discriminated against in the labour market.

The relevance of this research today

In the 1920s, it was not illegal to discriminate against someone based on their characteristics. That is not the case today.

Nevertheless, various studies have shown that discrimination because of race or culture is still prevalent, despite advances in legislation. Furthermore, migration is increasingly becoming more restricted due to recent political decisions such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US President.

“This is an issue of discrimination. As economists we can pin it down and measure it, and then we could also give policy advice on how this discrimination should be tackled.”

Dr Zahra Siddique

The paper that Zahra co-authored, The Economic Payoff of Name Americanization, has been covered by a number of media outlets, including The Economist, The Financial Times and Slate. It has been published in the top field journal in labour economics. This paper was also a runner-up for the University's 2017 research prize in the Prosperity & Resilience theme.

How this research expertise feeds into teaching at Reading

Across a number of modules, but most notably "Intermediate econometrics", the Department teaches you the tools you need to conduct research.

“Our second and third year econometrics modules cover differences-in-differences, instrumental variables as well as methods that may be used on panel data while using examples from economic research. We employed several of these methods in our work on the name Americanization of migrants.”

Dr Zahra Siddique

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