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Stephen Wu.

Irma M. and Robert D. Morris Professor of Economics Stephen Wu and his former student Qi Ge ’06, assistant professor of economics at Vassar College, recently collaborated on research that tested for labor market discrimination among economics Ph.D. job candidates based on name fluency, a previously unstudied characteristic.

The co-authors of the working paper, “How Do You Say Your Name? Difficult-To-Pronounce Names and Labor Market Outcomes”, and their findings have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, in a segment for Southern California Public Radio (KPCC), and Inside Higher Ed, among other outlets.

According to the paper’s abstract, “analysis on two recent cohorts of economics Ph.D. job candidates shows that those with difficult-to-pronounce names are less likely to obtain an academic or tenure-track position and are placed at institutions with lower research productivity.” 

Wu and Ge’s research found that people with complex names had a 10% lower chance of getting an academic job over the next year. That fluctuated based on where candidates were applying from: those graduating from top-ranked doctoral programs had a much smaller name penalty than those coming from lower-ranked Ph.D. programs. The researchers also found discrimination due to name fluency using experimental data from two prior audit studies that included Black candidates and Indian, Pakistani, and Chinese candidates. Even within a particular racial/ethnic group, job applicants with less fluent names had significantly lower callback rates.

In the Wall Street Journal article, Wu noted that removing names on résumés to ensure candidates are evaluated based only on their qualifications is a potential solution. “Knowing [the bias] exists might help limit it,” he said in the interview.

Among the three ways the research team measured the difficulty of pronunciation was an algorithmic ranking based on the commonality of letter and phoneme combinations within a first name and a last name. The algorithm was developed by a team of Hamilton computer science students as part of their senior thesis project. Those students were supervised by Assistant Professor of Computer Science Darren Strash. 

Wu has published widely in many areas of applied microeconomics. Some of his research topics include the relationship between health and financial status, the determinants of subjective well-being, and early decision and college performance. Wu regularly teaches courses in microeconomics, statistics, health economics, and the economics of higher education.

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