Shakespeare, Lincoln… Jane Austen? How Gender Bias Even Extends To Last Names

ITHACA, N.Y. — Gender gap discourse tends to center around unequal wages and limited upward mobility for women in the workplace. While these systemic disadvantages are likely the most consequential, they fail to highlight some of the odder — and less obvious — obstacles that successful females face. Take, for example, name recognition. A recent study demonstrates how people seem to be more inclined to refer to prominent men by their last names — often a sign of success or power — compared to women of equal significance.

Researchers at Cornell recently conducted eight related studies to determine how naming conventions affected the public perception of a prominent professional. More specifically, the researchers sought to understand the effects of being referred to by one’s surname and nothing else.

As hypothesized, mononyms conferred clear advantages — they made successful individuals seem both more famous and more important in the public eye. Males, unsurprisingly, were more than twice as likely as females to be called by only their last name, one of these studies found.

Another study showed that participants thought surname-only scientists 14 percent more deserving of a National Science Foundation career award. A similar bias revealed itself when discussing fictional scientists: participants were more likely to mention the male by only his surname. 

To end the debate, the researchers also analyzed two other representative samples of data. One found that students were 56 percent more likely to refer to a male professor by only his last name on Rate My Professor; another found that radio talk show hosts were less than half as inclined to refer to a well-known woman by only her surname.

While the researchers didn’t explore any causes for this discrepancy, one possible explanation is that women, by convention, give up their maiden name during adult life.

“But we haven’t looked at any domains that are female-dominated, so it’s also possible that when the default gender in a field is male, using the full name is a way to highlight that the person is a woman in a male-dominated field,” adds Stav Atir, the study’s co-author, in a release.

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Regardless, these findings are problematic, argues Melissa Ferguson, the study’s other co-author, as they imply that females, who often must go by their full name, are less competent than their male counterparts.

“It’s possible that referring to a candidate by their full name instead of just the surname could have implications for fame and eminence,” Ferguson explains, using the example of a politician.

Ferguson and Atir intend to further explore the effects of gender bias in naming, but for now, will simply “pay more attention to how we refer to female scientists.”

The study’s findings were published on June 25, 2018 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.