My name is Shadon (Shaw-Dawn) Elizabeth Ghassemlou. My first name means, “one who is happy” in Persian/Farsi, and, for the most part, I think I have done an okay-ish job of living up to my name. I was born in San Diego to an American mother from the Iron Range of Minnesota and a Persian father from Tehran, Iran. I grew up in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. (Although I usually tell people I’m from a Minneapolis suburb, because ,not only does the name of my hometown sound awful, but “coon” also means “ass” in Farsi…and yea, that’s just mortifying to explain to Farsi speakers).
After September 11, 2001, I never really gave much thought to what it meant to be Persian/Iranian, or why I suddenly needed to defend who I was to people I had known my entire life. Being half Persian in Minnesota (especially with an ethnic name) meant having to deal with the “otherness” and “not enough-ness” of my mixed identity—not Persian enough to understand the intricate cultural nuances of my Iranian family (or language, for that matter), but not American enough to get by without being bombarded with questions about my name/lack of accent/birthplace/ethnicity/religion on a daily basis. As a mixed kid with an intimidatingly long name, you become really good at rattling off answers to these questions, in addition to spelling your name for those who can’t seem to understand that your name is NOT Shadow, Shannon, or Sharon, but rather “S” like Sam, “H” like hamburger, “A” like apple, “D” like dog, “O” like orange, “N” like Nancy.
Fast-forward to the beginning of my professional career in human resources, and that’s where things get even more interesting for this ethnically ambiguous lady with a Minnesota accent. At this point, the majority of my undergraduate and postgraduate experience was in career services. I helped students write resumes and cover letters, prepared them for on-campus interviews, and was a teaching assistant for a career explorations course. It’s now early 2012, and I’m looking to grow my career. Ready to leave my entry-level job in search of one that is more aligned with my professional career goals in HR.
Confident in my abilities to write an impeccable resume and cover letter tailored to the job description and company, I successfully applied to an impressive number of job postings based on my qualifications and education. Days went by, then weeks, and slowly but surely, my email was filling with automatic responses from companies stating they had filled the position, or that my resume didn’t meet their qualifications.
I grew increasingly frustrated with job hunting, especially when I was doing all the right things. Seeing people I’d helped during my time in career services update their LinkedIn profiles with great new jobs at reputable companies only added to my frustration. It came to the point where I was no longer living up to my “happy” name...so I decided to partake in a social experiment of my own making.
I remembered an article from graduate school about an experiment conducted by Marianne Bertrand with the Chicago Graduate School of Business and Sendhil Mullainathan with MIT. They found applicants with “white-sounding” names were 50% more likely to be contacted for job interviews than those with “black-sounding” names. A light bulb went off in my head, and, from that moment, I decided to invoke all the privileges and rights my middle name could afford me. Elizabeth—an elegant name that wasn’t intimidating or hard to pronounce. A name that was sure to get me an in-person interview (or at least a phone screen).
I created a new email, changed the name on my resume (while leaving everything else the same), and started the job hunt as “Elizabeth.” Many of the jobs I applied to under my first name happened to still be available online, so I decided to re-apply. Wouldn’t you know it, three of those companies reached out to schedule phone interviews
What’s more disheartening is the companies that reached out weren’t local mom and pop shops, but Fortune 500 companies that have headquarters in the Twin Cities Metro. The same companies that adorn all their official literature with smiling and shiny faces of a multi-ethnic workforce, proudly proclaiming their "commitment to diversity."
Humans resources is presumably—and hopefully—the place to go when employees feel discriminated against in any way. But here I was being rejected for jobs I applied to as “Shadon,” but pushed through as “Elizabeth.” I ended up rejecting those three phone screens because I couldn’t, in good conscious, move forward with a company where I had to anglicize my name to get an interview.
I eventually took an HR position in a large, progressive, public school district where they dedicated multiple interview questions around diversity, inclusion, and equity. My name, ethnicity, and perceived citizenship status and religious affiliation wasn’t used against me, and it didn’t get me automatically weeded out from the applicant pool.
Upward and Eastward
Fast-forward to a couple years later. I’m no longer with the school district, but at a company that offered me a challenging role with a more prestigious title). My husband received a great job offer in the D.C. Metro Area. Before I knew it, I was packing up my entire life and heading to the East Coast. I put in my resignation and immediately started applying to roles in D.C. as Shadon. I didn’t want to start out my D.C. job search as “Elizabeth” and, based on my previous visits to D.C., it was considerably more diverse than the Twin Cities.
As expected, I was getting call backs and interviews at a rate for which I wasn’t prepared. The people interviewing me were from diverse backgrounds, the people around me were from diverse backgrounds, and I immediately felt like I fit in. I was warmly welcomed by colleagues in my new role at a global engineering company who were more intrigued by my Minnesotan accent than my ethnic origin.
I love Minnesota. I always will, but it’s quite rewarding now to be in a place where diversity is not a half-hearted commitment for some kind of corporate expediency and image management. I have found this place to be not simply "committed to diversity" in corporate literature. Rather, it moves far beyond commitment to the point where diversity in the workforce is a reality and there’s no need for a brochure.
In my new home, far away from friends and family, I find comfort in finally being Shadon. Not worried about my other-ness or not enough-ness.
As for Elizabeth, she has her place, and that’s sandwiched in between two other names that may look intimidating to pronounce but are full of meaning and happiness.
/written by Shadon Ghassemlou