Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Recently, I met for the first time an International Researcher (IR) in a field similar to mine. Our fields of research are just different enough that somehow the years went by without our ever actually meeting or even seeing each other in person. The IR was shocked upon meeting me, and said so; i.e., words to the effect of “You aren’t ANYTHING like I thought you would be.” I don’t think I had any particular pre-meeting mental image of what this IR would look like, but I was curious about why I was apparently so different from expected. Was it the usual thing involving my dumb blonde hair or my young-for-my-age appearance? No, as it turns out. It didn’t even have anything to do with my appearance. When we first met, the IR and I had a friendly conversation, and we were both laughing about something or other, after which came the statement about my being different from expected The IR thought that, based on my NAME, I would be “snooty”, serious, perhaps even unfriendly, and would have no sense of humor.

I have a very ordinary name.

Of course I asked what about my name was so unfriendly, thinking perhaps one of my names signified something dire in the IR’s native language, but no, it was just a random impression by the IR, based on nothing in particular. We laughed about it, and that was that.

I was thinking about names this week because it turns out that I am involved in a research project with a young woman with a ‘cute’ name – a name like Kandi or Brandi or Muffy or Coco. When I first heard her name, I thought to myself “And I think I have trouble being taken seriously..” At least I have a serious (perhaps too serious) name.

There are studies about the effect of names on later professional success. I am very curious to know what her parents were thinking when they gave her that name. Are they surprised she turned out to be a scientist? Is she ever tempted to use a middle name (assuming it is not a Kandi/Brandi kind of name as well), or does she enjoy surprising people and turning their assumptions upside down when they find out what she does for a living? I think it’s great -- she is kind of a pioneer for cute-named career women of the world, and for every woman scientist who doesn’t fit the lingering stereotypes about Scientists.


justin said...

The book Freakonomics has a chapter on names, and the authors show that certain names are more common among White than Black parents, or among poor than rich parents (and vice versa).

I expect they'd agree with you too, that a name with connotations of lower socioeconomic status might impede somebody's life.

Anonymous said...

I met a colleague at a meeting last fall with a name that in my mind suggested a serious Germanic uber-professor who would be very stuffy, pompous and grey haired. His scientific work was also very impressive, which had likely reinforced my mental conclusion that he was a very senior person. Imagine my surprise when this professor turned out to be in his mid-thirties and to look like a young grad student. I blurted out something similar to what you heard--"I expected you to be much older"-to my later embrassment.

It's fun to meet people whose papers you admire and with whom you may have been in email contact and never have l met, but I have to learn to discipline my tongue if their appearence does not fit my preconceptions.

Journeyman Scientist said...

Following up Justin's comment: The authors of Freakonomics conclude that names are not a direct impediment, rather it is the initial socioeconomic conditions of children (of which names are an indicator) that are important. In terms of prejudice, having the 'wrong' name is probably no worse that having the 'wrong' accent or coming from the 'wrong' neighborhood.

I like to think that academe is one of those places where such things are unimportant for progression. The only time this kind of thing tends to rear its head is in student feedback and even then it is only a small minority who find it important/pathetically amusing (and would always have a problem with some personal trait, a bit like a school bully).

Jamy said...

She may actually want to change her name, but it's awfully hard. People who know you by the old name are confused--and it can be confusing for the name-changer too. She may have decided it's easier to live with it. (I have a very common first name that I would like to change, but it's not worth the bother. It's not a "silly" sounding name, just one that ties me directly to my generation.)

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Anonymous said...

We've got a relative who uses a diminutive form of her first name in a male dominated profession. She insists her abilities and credentials overcome the cutesy name once her colleagues have the opportunity to work with her.