What assumptions do you make about a woman when you hear that she has changed her surname after getting married? And what assumptions do you make about her when you hear she kept her surname after getting married? Do you think those assumptions would affect her success in getting a job? On her eventual income?
What’s in a Name? The Effects of Marital Name Change is an interesting recent study from the Netherlands that shows that we do indeed make judgements about women according to whether they change or keep their name after getting married (to a man). (Well, I guess a big duh! from all of us who have ever participated in a bitter debate about the topic on a feminist blog).
Essentially, the study found that when we learn a woman has changed her surname after marriage (henceforth to be known as name-changers) it becomes a trigger for female stereotypes, and consequently on this basis she will be seen as more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, more communal and a little less competent than other women who kept their name after marrying (henceforth to be known as name-keepers). Additionally, name-keepers were seen as more independent, more ambitious and more intelligent than their name-changing colleagues. Basically, they were seen as being more like men.
So what happens when these women apply for a job? Women with more stereotypical female features, like having your partner’s surname are likely to be judged more in accordance with the female stereotype, which surprise, surprise is not such a good thing when you’re going for a job in a patriarchal world. These judgements would make it less likely the name-changer would be hired. The study also found that people’s judgements included assuming that the name-changer would earn considerably less than her name-keeper colleague for the same job. And I do mean considerably less. For example if the name-changer’s monthly salary was AU$ 3100 her name-keeper colleague was perceived to be worth AU$4,300 for the same job. (Or US$2800 compared to US$3900).
Interestingly, women with hyphenated surnames (their original surname and their husband’s) were also judged more in accordance with female stereotypes even though they themselves were likely to see their surname choice as non-traditional – and in reality were found to have more feminist attitudes and higher personal agency scores than name-changers making them pretty close in attitude to name-keepers. (In part these results may reflect Dutch-specific attitudes where hyphenating is still associated with quite a traditional approach to marital identity whereas in other Western countries hyphenating might be a more radical choice after marriage).
All the same, surname changing is set to continue. Another study conducted by the same authors found that more than 80% of female university students in the Netherlands said they intended to change their name upon marrying. And when you consider that higher education levels are associated with name-keeping that is a pretty high number for that particular sample group. And a similar number of male university students hoped their future wife would change their surname to that of their husband’s. Why do women change their name? Studies have found that it is mainly on account of tradition, family unity and social norms, while women who keep their name or who hyphenated it with their husband’s have been found to do so because they feel their name is part of their identity.
Cross-posted at blue milk.