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Blog | 15 December 2021

The power of her name

By Vanisha Smith, Employability Coach at Working Chance

‘Have I pronounced your name correctly?’

I often ask this question when speaking to a client for the first time. As an Employability Coach, I work in the team that acts as the first point of contact for women who are interested in receiving support from Working Chance.

Sometimes I come across a name I may be familiar with, but it’s spelt or pronounced slightly differently. Typically, the woman will overlook the mispronunciation of her name. Or I’m met with, ‘It’s pronounced x, but it’s fine!’ I even once had a woman say, ‘You can call me what you want’.

This is particularly the case for women who have become accustomed to their names being mispronounced. But I always take the time to learn how to pronounce their name correctly. By correctly I mean as she wants it to be pronounced.

Learning how to pronounce someone’s name is an excellent way to break the ice and start our working relationship on a mutually respectful note. But more importantly, on its most basic level, it’s a chance for a woman to reclaim the power of her name.

My name, my identity

Our names form a key part of our identity which, in turn, informs how we present and even interact with the world. Some names have intricate cultural meanings and may follow tradition: symbolising the day of the week you were born or other historical connections.

Whether assigned to us by someone else at birth or chosen ourselves later in life, our names make up a core part of our self-chosen identity. But for many women who lived through the criminal justice system, this identity has been stripped from them.

Our clients who have served prison sentences sometimes tell me that they’ve become accustomed to being referred to by their prison number, or having their name pronounced incorrectly by prison staff. This may seem small initially, but this can impact negatively on a woman’s confidence and self-esteem.

This is especially the case for racially minoritised women (and the majority of our clients are from racially minoritised communities), who may have resigned themselves to nicknames or shortened versions of their name, imposed for the 'convenience' of others rather than appreciation of the various beautiful and multicultural names that exist.

Then, after leaving the criminal justice system, the label of  ‘offender/ex-offender’ can resonate strongly when this is heard more frequently than your name. Women with convictions share experience of the criminal justice system, but it’s important to remember that each woman has her own unique identity and experience.

‘Can you call me Alex? Alexandra reminds me of being in trouble…’

On the other hand, for some women, their name given at birth is associated with memories of being in trouble at school, with parents/guardians, or of their conviction, particularly if it featured heavily in the media.

I have also found that it’s also not uncommon for a woman to change her name by deed poll following a conviction. It’s typically to avoid potential employers looking them up on Google and finding out about their conviction before they’ve had a chance to disclose it. Equally some women do this as they feel it allows them the best chance of a ‘fresh start’.

Taking back control

When someone doesn’t take the time to pronounce your name correctly, it can feel like you don’t matter. For women who feel they have lost their sense of self or control over their lives following a conviction, having their name pronounced correctly and correcting when it’s mispronounced is one powerful way of taking back control over their lives and reclaiming their identity.

As part of working in a trauma informed way, I always ask if the woman has a preferred name they’d like to be addressed by. It can take some time to ask if I’ve pronounced a name correctly and, if not, to learn how to. But once I highlight the importance of their names and my own commitment to getting it right, clients are often surprised and pleased at my efforts to address them in their preferred way.

Respect and learning are part of our core values at Working Chance and this can be demonstrated by a simple act like taking the time to learn how to pronounce a woman’s name correctly. It can also contribute to her feeling empowered and included: having your name pronounced correctly matters because you matter.

Read more from Vanisha