When last comes first: Why surnames signify a higher status

August 14, 2018

Are you, quite literally, a name-dropper—sometimes using a full name; and sometimes, only a surname? When you refer to famous people, do you say “Darwin,” but “Marie Curie?” Trump, but Hillary Clinton? Shakespeare, but Jane Austen?

Studies conducted by psychologists at Cornell University’s College of Arts and Science have found that we are more than twice as likely to call male professionals—even fictional ones—by their last names only. This example of gender bias, say the researchers, may be contributing to gender inequality.

The eight studies—which recruited both men and women as participants—established that, when males are referred to only by surname, they are perceived as more famous and revered than others (usually females) who are referred to by their first and last names.

“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. 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 only by their last names were considered by participants to be 14% 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% 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.”

Research contact:  as_communication@cornell.edu

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