It shouldn’t be, but an Anglo surname is worth gold in Australia

Singing the praises … of having an Anglo-Saxon sounding surname in Australia. [A female accordionist and a singer sing with passion.]

If you can access an Anglo-Saxon surname as an Australian citizen, go for it! Sorry, Jenna Price (Attention Mrs Nobody, Sydney Morning Herald, 11/10/23), there are benefits to taking on a spouse’s surname.

Jenna’s story is behind a paywall, sorry, but here’s the gist of it. She argues that when you marry, keep your name — it’s “who you are”. And for the thousands of Aussie women who want to dust off and use their maiden name again, it’s an agonising (and sometimes costly) process.

I’m with the other camp.

I use my old married surname of Paton as my byline and occasionally teach K-12 classes with it, yet my maiden, and legal, name is Jakovac (pronounced YUK-oh-vatz, in case you’re curious). I’ve been divorced for over a decade, and it annoys my ex-husband I keep using his surname.

But it’s not payback. It’s business.

Dual monikers have worked in my favour. Wheeling out my Anglo surname has opened many doors for jobs over the years. It also gives me a bit of anonymity and deflects rude or uncomfortable questions.

I’ll explain.

Once I graduated as a primary schoolteacher in 2011 as a 40-something-year-old, I moved away from my mid-Blue Mountains home. To get work, I hand-delivered my teaching resume to more than 40 schools. My footprint spanned Western Sydney, the Blue Mountains, and a little west of there. Despite doing that every term, following up with phone calls and emails for two years, I only secured two days of paid teaching. And a couple of volunteer days.

That was it. Two years, only two days of work.

Luckily, I was still writing three days a week for a local council and as a freelancer elsewhere.

Let’s take a closer look at that resume. It had my then legal non-Anglo surname and featured the words ‘Australian-born, bred and educated’ in bold, 14-point text. I also added a profile photo.

A poor response had also happened when I tried to find on-site, full-time writing, media liaison, or communications work in the region I planned to move to next — Central West NSW. For 18 months, I applied for jobs. I wasn’t a novice. Brandishing three degrees, and 25-plus years of relevant professional experience (including management) across private, public, and non-profit sectors in Melbourne, Sydney, and Europe.

Despite this wealth of experience, I only notched two interviews — one of them with a former Nine regional newspaper for whom I’d worked as a Paton five years before. I got the job, but quickly argued my byline should be Paton, not my legal name.

By then, I had cottoned on to the power of an Anglo surname.

After many calls to the teacher registration authority and the NSW Department of Education, I managed to change my ‘teaching surname’ to Paton. Out I went with that new shingle to find teaching work in 2016.

The floodgates of work opened.

I consistently received calls for work. Some days more than one school wanted me. I secured regular part-time work and principals said they were happy to take me for any days I was available.

I wasn’t a better teacher, nor was I more experienced than my earlier foray into teaching.

The only difference was my surname.

Working under the Paton name has allowed me to be privy to what some people really think about non-Anglos in the workplace. At one school, an assistant principal told me she wouldn’t hire teachers — even casually — if they had a “surname I couldn’t pronounce”.

“They won’t know the Australian culture, so I’m not exposing my students to that,” she harrumphed.

In other workplaces, I’ve been reluctant to disclose my Croatian heritage to workmates until I feel the right vibe. Sometimes, I’ve gone in too early with the disclosure and the niggling questions begin. Where’s that surname from, were you born here, or the slightly odd, “You’ll have to bring in some Croatian food for us to try”. Denying me the right to be an Australian-Croatian is a gut punch. It’s the key to my identity.

According to the 2021 Census, a third of Australia’s population claimed Anglo origin. It took until last year for Australia to elect a prime minister with a non-Anglo-Saxon surname.

Sounds like we non-Anglos are the majority from the grassroots to the very top. The tipping point has well and truly arrived.

Maybe it’s time to stop ‘othering’ the majority. Start looking beyond a name as a label and ‘catch all’ of assumptions.

P.S. I’ve just come across a peer-reviewed scholarly paper which highlights the racism I’ve written about above.

The paper, No one would give me that job in Australia’: when professional identities intersect with how teachers look, speak and where they come from, confirms to me that my experience is NOT unusual.

In this Monash University (Victoria, Australia) study, seven out of the 19 participants were secondary school teachers, yet only one was able to find employment in a high school.

For instance, the researchers state: “Largely due to unemployment, even though several teachers were qualified and experienced schoolteachers, most decided to teach EAL [English as an additional language] and ELICOS [English lnaguage Intensive Courses for overseas Students] because they could not secure any job in the school sector.”

Australia has a ridiculous shortage of teachers and it will continue to get worse, particularly in NSW, where I’m based. Internal education department documents show this state will run out of new teachers by 2026 (Baker, 2021). We pride ourselves on being a diverse and tolerant nation.

I repeat my opening point that if you can access an Anglo-Saxon surname, grab it!

References:

Baker, J. (7 October 2021). Public school teacher shortage raises fears they will ‘run out of teachers’. The Sydney Morning Herald. [behind a paywall]

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Margaret Paton, Aussie-based education writer

PhD student at Deakin University, Australia, using netnography to explore out-of-field teaching. GradCert Ed Research MTeach|GradDip Comm Mgmt |BA Journalism.