Calling men by their surname gives them an unfair career boost | Tech News
Darwin. Einstein. Marie Curie. When we talk about professionals, we tend to refer to men by their surnames but not women, according to new findings from several studies. And it matters. It seems that when we refer to someone by surname it also boosts people’s perceptions of them. This hidden bias could be a factor behind gender inequality in many professions.
Psychologist Stav Atir at Cornell University decided to carry out the study after she noticed that male politicians seemed to be referred to by their surname more than their female counterparts. “I wanted to find out if this pattern really existed, and if so, does it have any consequences,” she says.
Along with her colleague Melissa Ferguson, Atir began by analysing almost 5,000 online student reviews of their professors, as well as transcripts of over 300 US political radio show segments.
In another experiment, 184 volunteers were given identical bullet points about the work of fictional chemist Dolores Berson or Douglas Berson, and asked to rewrite the information in full sentences.
Across these and several other similar studies, the pair found that on average both men and women were twice as likely to refer to men by their surnames than they were women. In the Berson experiment, they were four times as likely to do so. The findings applied across science, literature and politics.
The Matthew Effect
This surname bias might have important real-world consequences. In follow-up experiments, Atir and Ferguson found that scientists referred to by surname rather than full name were judged to be more famous and eminent.
We know from past research that fame can lead to more recognition, something known as the Matthew Effect. For instance, one study showed that reviewers are more likely to accept a paper by a famous researcher when they know who wrote it compare to when the author’s name is withheld.
This idea is reflected in Atir’s final experiment. More than 500 participants were asked to rate whether scientists, referred to by full name or surname, should be granted a $500,000 National Science Foundation award. The latter were 14 per cent more likely to be recommended for the award.
Counter-intuitively, Atir thinks that we may actually refer to women by their full name in order to help them get recognition. Even today, the default gender for many professions is assumed to be male, says Atir. “When you hear a surname, you think it’s male.” So women’s full names are used to highlight their contribution and participation– but this egalitarian motivation can backfire. “Our work suggests that an unintended consequence is that women then come across as less eminent,” Atir says.
If the surname bias is confirmed, it will join a long list of seemingly minor biases that together add up to large gender differences in the workplace.
Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1805284115
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