Surname discrimination: implications for Korean university professors.

Author:Walcutt, Brandon


For decades, academics have been testing a host of different characteristics to identify their impact on the labor market and other areas of social competition. These characteristics have included a range of influencers stretching from sex, race, self-perceived productivity enhancers and even beauty (i.e. Walcutt et. al., 2011; Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Wood et al., 1993). One relatively recent characteristic to be tested is the effect that surnames have on areas such as employment, trust, and compensation. In some studies, surnames have had little effect on behaviors, whereas in other research, the results have displayed potentially discriminatory results.

By definition, surname discrimination is a condition where individuals with the same economic or cognitive characteristics receive higher wages, evaluations or opportunities, and whose differences are systematically correlated with the surname of an individual (Jurajda & Munich, 2007; Arai & Thoursie, 2006; Wood et al., 1993). Based on the above research, there are differing opinions of the impacts of surnames on various labor markets. This alone helps justify the need to more fully explore the causes, dynamics and overall existence of this phenomenon. However, this need is further compounded when applied to a high contextual Confucianistic society, as found in Korea, where there is a continuing drive to modernize governmental regulations and the labor markets to better ensure fair and transparent HR practices (Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor, 2010).

To accomplish these goals, researchers have tried to better define the scope of surname discrimination by applying it to an entire spectrum of studies using surnames to estimate or justify wages, identify work productivity and trustworthiness and even show the impact on the tenure of university professors (Ahmed, 2010; Frandsen & Nicolansen, 2010; Efthyvoulou, 2008; van Pragg and van Pragg, 2007; Einav & Yaviv, 2006; Aria &Thoursie, 2006; Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Gordon et al., 1974, Zuckerman, 1968;). The research results have been less than conclusive, but many studies have determined that surnames can have some degree of influence. As it relates to the current study, this research will be conducted with the goal of identifying the existence of surname discrimination in the context of Korean university professor employment, quantifying the impact of surname initials on academic employability and providing some explanation of the results by statistically analyzing data from four top Korean universities.

This study will contribute to the overall body of knowledge by covering surname discrimination from a university context and assist in supporting the impact of surname initials as related to academic authorship on professor employment. In addition to further fleshing out the existence and role of surname discrimination in Korea, the findings can also help university and governmental policy makers validate their efforts in the modernization of fair and equitable HR practices. Additionally, unlike the current research, no past studies have examined the surname discrimination phenomenon from a cultural standpoint, especially as it relates to Confucianism-based cultures, as culture may infer significant reasons for any surname discriminatory tendencies identified. Lastly, no other studies have been conducted involving Asian countries, and especially none that have cultures that are highly Confucianistic, such as Korea. By closely investigating the effects, these gaps in the literature should be more thoroughly covered.

Organized into four sections, this paper begins by identifying theories related to surname discrimination. The following section relates to data collection, hypotheses, and the statistical approach used by the researchers. The collected data is then subjected to a comprehensive analysis to explain the results and implications. The final section summarizes the findings on the study's hypotheses and limitations.


The literature applying to the effects of surnames is a relatively new subset of the body of knowledge on labor market discrimination. The literature review for the current study is organized into three distinct sections. The first relates to the general studies on the surname discrimination phenomenon and is followed by the two primary theories employed to explain its existence in the context of employment based surname issues. The last section incorporates essential cultural and recent governmental and business policy information to assist in understanding the Korean context of this study.

Surname Discrimination Research:

To generalize, the primary studies conducted to date on surnames have looked at surname discrimination from two points of view: (1) discrimination based on race or other factors and (2) the alphabetical-ordering effects associated with academic paper authorship. The first theme used by prior studies has been to examine the impact of surnames associated with race or regional origin to labor market outcomes including jobs, earnings and trust. For example, Bertrand and Mullainathan (2003) measured racial discrimination in the labor market by assigning an African American sounding name or a very white sounding name to resumes when applying to help-wanted advertisements. The authors' results showed significant discrimination against African-American names. A second study compared the earnings development for a group of immigrants to Sweden that changed their names to Swedish-sounding or neutral surnames with immigrants who retained their original names. The results showed that, although both groups were similar in earnings and abilities before the change, an earnings gap after the name change was observed of about 26 percent and was felt to be attributed directly to the name change (Arai & Thourise, 2006).

A further study found statistically significant discriminatory behavior by men against co-players with non-European backgrounds in trust and dictator games that showed the impacts of foreign surnames on perceived racial or regional origin discrimination and on interpersonal trust. The researcher concluded that this discriminatory behavior was solely a male phenomenon (Ahmed, 2001). A few additional studies, following the same vein and with similar results, were conducted by researchers such as Ahmed (2006, 2010) and Frandsen and Nicolaisen (2010).

The second theme used by researchers relates to the alphabetical-ordering effects associated with academic paper authorship. In academia, most fields of study use one of two conventions to assign authors' names to papers. Within the field of economics, for example, names are typically assigned to academic papers based on the order of the authors' surname initials whereas the discipline of psychology orders surnames based on each author's contribution to the research. Within this context, a number of papers were written looking at the correlations between surnames and academic or university position outcomes. Einav and Yariv (2006) presented evidence that a variety of proxies for success in the U.S. economics labor market (tenure at highly ranked schools, fellowships in the Econometric Society, and to a lesser extent, Nobel Prize and Clark Medal winnings) were correlated with surname initials, favoring economists with surname initials earlier in the alphabet. The general discriminatory trend...

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