When last comes first: the gender bias of names

When talking about famous people, do you say “Darwin” but “Marie Curie?” Dickens but Emily Dickinson? Shakespeare but Jane Austen? What’s in a name – or part of a name – matters.

In new research, psychologists found that study participants, on average, were more than twice as likely to call male professionals – even fictional ones – by their last name only, compared to equivalent female professionals. This example of gender bias, say researchers, may be contributing to gender inequality.

The eight studies, which included men and women, showed the difference in naming affected participants’ judgments of professionals: When men were referred to only by surname, they were perceived as more famous and more important than the women, who were referred to by their first and last names.


From left to right: Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens

“This sort of judgment could result in more recognition, awards, funding and other career benefits, and suggests that a subtle difference in the way we talk about women and men might lead to bias,” wrote researchers Stav Atir, doctoral student, and Melissa Ferguson, professor and chair of psychology, in the College of Arts and Sciences. The paper, “How Gender Determines the Way We Speak About Professionals,” was published June 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Atir first noticed the discrepancy in naming when listening to political pundits on Israeli television, but she found the same held true of students and faculty at Cornell when they talked about scientists. “I wondered if there were any benefits to being referred to only by your surname,” she said.

One of their studies showed a clear benefit: Scientists identified by only their last names were considered by participants as 14 percent more worthy of receiving a National Science Foundation career award.

The studies looked at archival data in numerous online domains, including Rate My Professors. In an analysis of nearly 4,500 comments on that website, they found that students were 56 percent more likely to refer to a male professor by only his surname. In another study, political pundits on the radio, including Rush Limbaugh and NPR’s Terry Gross, were more than twice as likely to refer to well-known men by their last names only.

The gender bias was consistent throughout the studies, including one experiment in which participants writing about fictional scientists were more likely to refer to the male scientist by last name only.

The studies don’t show why the discrepancy in naming is happening, but one possibility is that surnames may be seen as male and less identified with women, said Atir, because women are less likely than men to keep their surname throughout their lives, and surnames typically pass from father to child. “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,” she said.

But doing so, said Ferguson, may undermine the woman’s prominence, since the implication is that the woman isn’t as well-known and thus needs to be identified by her full name – and if she isn’t as well-known, then she isn’t as important or deserving of recognition.

The implications for political campaigns could be significant, said Ferguson. “It’s possible that referring to a candidate by their full name instead of just the surname could have implications for fame and eminence.”

The researchers are planning additional studies to look at the implications and consequences of the gender bias in names. But just pointing out the discrepancy could have some effect, said Ferguson. “In my lab, we now pay more attention to how we refer to female scientists.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle

This research was also covered in multiple media outlets, including Forbes Magazine.

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