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The Way We Identify Professionals Disadvantages Women

Males are much more likely to be granted last-name-only status, which implies eminence in their field.
English novelist Jane Austen.

English novelist Jane Austen.

Quick: Name a few of your all-time favorite authors. Shakespeare. Dickens. Emily Dickinson. Jane Austen.

Notice anything odd about that list? The women are referred to by their full name, while the men are identified by their surname only.

New research finds that habit also applies to women in the sciences, politics, and other high-profile fields. And there's evidence it undermines their status, lowering the odds they'll be perceived as a top-tier talent.

"On average, people are over twice as likely to likely to refer to male professionals by surname than female professionals," Cornell University psychologists Stav Atir and Melissa Ferguson write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That matters because people "referred to by surname are judged as more famous and eminent," and therefore worthy of recognition.

The researchers describe eight studies—four demonstrating this unconscious tendency, and four pointing to possible consequences. In the first, they analyzed 4,494 comments on the "Rate My Professors" website. "Students were 55.9 percent more likely to refer to a male than female professor by surname," they report.

In another study, they analyzed transcripts from prominent radio news programs, including three on NPR. They found "speakers were more than twice as likely to use a surname when speaking about a man than when speaking about a woman."

In still another, 184 participants were given a series of bullet points describing a prominent scientist's work and asked to rewrite it in full sentences. The researcher was randomly referred to as either Douglas or Dolores Berson; all the other information was identical.

The results: Participants who wrote about Doug "were more than four times as likely to refer to him by surname" than those who wrote about Dolores.

Turning to why this matters, several studies found researchers referred to by surname only were evaluated as "better known and more eminent" than those identified by their full name. And in our society, fame carries significant rewards.

For example, the final study featured 554 participants who evaluated the findings of two researchers: one referred to by surname only, and the other by their full name. (By design, the first name was gender-neutral.) They were then asked "which of the two researchers was more eminent," and which should receive the prestigious and lucrative National Science Foundation career award (a fictional prize).

"Researchers referred to by surname were perceived as more eminent," the researchers report, "and as 14 percent more deserving" of the reward.

Atir and Ferguson aren't sure why women are less likely to get the implied-high-status, last-name-only treatment. They speculate members of high-profile professions may be automatically assumed to be male. "Because it marks her atypical gender in male-dominated professions, women's first names may come to mind more easily and be used more often," they write.

But while it's seldom a matter of malice, the habit may be holding women back. "This gender bias may contribute to the gender gap in perceived eminence, as well as in actual recognition," the researchers conclude, "and may partially explain the persistent state of women's underrepresentation in high-status fields, including science, technology, engineering, and math."

And don't forget the arts. Picasso and Frida Kahlo are both considered among the greatest artists of the 20th century, but which name jumps out at most people as signifying genius?