The Cumulative Impact of Having the Wrong Name
In another universe, Karl Starr has already given a TED talk
One of the most disheartening conversations of my life happened at a meetup for science writers at a bar in New York about six years ago. I was venting to a friend, “John,” about not getting a response from a Professor after multiple emails; an interview would have been ideal, but I’d have settled for a PDF of his latest study. I reached out to others in that line of research for a quote, but nothing.
“You didn’t even get the PDF?” he asked.
“Nope. And I mentioned that I was writing a book for Penguin.”
“Huh. Who was this?”
John, who was just “looking around for article ideas,” had also reached out to that same Professor that week.
While I got no response, John got an interview shortly after emailing.
We discussed and estimated that I had to send at least 5 emails to get a response—typically passed off to a lab assistant, grad student, or communications department for booking in the distant future—while he typically had no problems getting phone time and PDFs that week, if not the same day.
Remember Bruce Willis’s realization at the end of The Sixth Sense—when everything he’d been through became perfectly clear, horrible, and heartbreaking? That was me, at the bar and on the way home: I thought back to all of the emails I’d sent over the past several years, unanswered and dismissed after such careful crafting. All of those lingering questions. All of that time spent searching and waiting and hoping.
I thought about editors at publications I’d contacted; the additional research and pitches they requested before disappearing. I thought about John’s speedy responses from sources for interviews, phone time with editors to “bounce around some ideas,” and the grace of several rounds of edits—all before getting paid more money per article.
What would my world be like if I always got responses? If people shared and subscribed to my stuff as much as his?
How much more work do I have to do to in order to make the same amount of money as John?
This is the part of the story when someone might use words like anecdata and exaggerate or peer-reviewed research or criticize my emailing technique. And, in response, this is the part of the story when I remind that person about my experience working alongside Voldemort everyday for three years, witnessing the alternate universe of what it’s like to have the right name. (This is the part of the story where I remind researchers that peer-reviewed research, in addition to being collected by biased individuals, fails to capture the nuance of actual life.)
Yes there are studies about sending things out into the void with the wrong name
White job applicants who had served jail time for a felony were more likely to receive a callback than black applicants with no criminal record.1 Omitting references to being black or Asian American from one’s resumé (“whitening” it) is a boon: after whitening their resumé, Asian Americans get nearly twice as many callbacks; black candidates get two and a half times as many callbacks.2 (In that study, the organization didn’t matter: “Employers claiming to be pro-diversity discriminated against resumes with racial references just as much as employers who didn’t mention diversity at all in their job ads.”)
My favorite story from the gender callback divide: Kim O’Grady got no responses whatsoever after sending out resumés for four months. Then, as he writes:
I made one change that day. I put Mr. in front of my name on my CV. It looked a little too formal for my liking but I got an interview for the very next job I applied for. And the one after that. It all happened in a fortnight, and the second job was a substantial increase in responsibility over anything I had done before.
Where I had worked previously, there was a woman manager. She was the only one of about a dozen at my level, and there were none at the next level. She had worked her way up through the company over many years and was very good at her job. She was the example everyone used to show that it could be done, but that most women just didn’t want to. It’s embarrassing to think I once believed that. It’s even more incredible to think many people still do.
Writing While Female
Emily Glassberg Sands sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the country, plays under the names Michael Walker and Mary Walker. Identical scripts written under a female name “received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response than Michael’s.”
Writer Catherine Nichols decided to see what kind of reactions she’d get sending out her writing under a different name. Fifty literary agents got queries from Catherine, while another fifty got the exact same query from Charles Nichols.3
Of the fifty emails sent by Catherine, 2 agents asked to see her manuscript.
Of the fifty emails sent by Charles, 17 agents asked to see it.
“He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book,” Nichols wrote.
Literary agents are people who have willingly chosen to read unpublished manuscripts for a living and get paid based on their ability to sell them, so if their salary is contingent upon selling books, they should be focused on the quality of the pages.
Alas, the brain. Our action-oriented energy-efficient prediction machine, when judging value of the unknown or ambiguous, uses whatever cues are available. We favor people we can easily imagine playing a certain role, people who look like those who’ve been successful before, without realizing how much every single interaction adds up to a cumulative advantage over time. Success in cultural markets depends on getting attention by the right eyeballs, and then making sure that those eyeballs evaluate us favorably.
We like to believe that life is a pure meritocracy, but everything in studies and real life show us that merit is not judged equally.
It wasn’t until I dated a lawyer who spelled things out for me that I began to understand the racial disparities of incarceration in the U.S. If you are black, you are more likely to get pulled over; more likely to have your car searched; if the police find drugs or catch you for a traffic violation, you’re more likely to get a citation or arrested; more likely to go to trial; more likely to be found guilty; will get a longer, harsher sentence. Being black is a liability every step of the way.4
If you’re trying to make it as a writer—or even just trying to be taken seriously as a professional human being—not being a white male is also a liability at every step. You’re more likely to get ignored or dismissed by sources; less likely to get a response or commission from an editor; get paid much less per article; less likely to be considered an expert; have your writing evaluated more negatively; less likely to get shared by readers; more likely to attract dismissive or hateful comments; less likely to get a book deal; less likely to attract attention by reviewers or readers.
As a result of this cumulative advantage, who do we see when we look at the bestseller lists?
Your work and time are valued less by everyone. This shit is unbelievably tiring. This week, I got a copy of The New Yorker with a feature written by John; meanwhile, my editor at Medium just informed me that my contract won’t be renewed because they’re “going in a new direction.”
What You Can Do
Let’s stop thinking of life as a zero-sum game. Stop thinking of everyone as competition. Stop thinking that diversity is irrelevant. Start promoting, valuing, celebrating works from people who do not look like you. Believe their stories. Take them seriously. Make introductions to editors and agents and hiring managers. If you feel like this smacks of favoritism or giving out extra credit or judging things unfairly, remember that things are already being judged unfairly.
Productivity Gurus are always drawn to the stuff that’s right in front of our face, the stuff they can control: the phone, the internet, their filing system. But for some of us, being able to keep going and get shit done also requires a superhuman level of grit, resilience, motivation, and blind optimism. I can’t find anything about the anger or fatigue or burnout that accompanies the realization that having the wrong name is a liability to your work life. But it is.
Every decision by others is a combination of factors you can and can’t control—the theme of my first book—which helps me not let success get to my head, or failures get to my heart.
I oscillate between wanting to spend the rest of my life telling others to be extra kind to themselves and wanting to burn it all to the ground.
But first, a nap.
I genuinely love writing on Substack because I don’t have to deal with editors; please consider becoming a paid subscriber:
Click the heart like no one’s watching.
Subscribe like you’ve never received a shitty email.
Share like everyone will love it.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org because why the hell not?
Devah Pager. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology 108, no. 5 (2003): 937-975. source
Catherine Nichols. “Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name.” Jezebel. August 4, 2015. Accessed http://jezebel.com/homme-de-plume-what-i-learned-sending-my-novel-out-und-1720637627
I apologize if this example in anyway minimizes the genuine tragedy of racial discrimination and racism in the U.S. I can’t think of a more suitable analogy at the moment.