Tuesday, January 05, 2010

What is in a Name

Thanks to a reader for sending me a link to an article about a woman who had a lot more success finding work as a writer/editor with a male pseudonym than when using her own name, for the exact same work, which was entirely transacted online.

The comments are interesting too. Most are very supportive, but then there are some others.. there are always those others. Some of those others say that using a male name to conduct business (in this case writing/editing) was deceptive and that people who enter into a business contract have a right to know things about the person with whom they are contracting their business.

But what are these things that one needs to know, other than some obvious things about professional qualifications, and do these things include gender? I see no legal or ethical reason why someone hiring a copy editor or technical writer needs to know the gender of the person being hired. Do we also need to know the race, religion, weight, and hobbies of those with whom we do business, especially if that business involves no in-person contact and these characteristics (and our opinion of them) are irrelevant to the tasks involved in the business transaction?

For some in-person professional relationships, it does matter. For example, some women request female doctors when seeking medical care. I think that is fine and is a different category than, say, having a gender/race preference for an airline pilot (or professor).

In the specific case of working with writers/editors, I often interact (entirely electronically) with editors and technical writers in other countries; in many cases, I do not know whether they are male or female because I am not familiar with the names in those countries. I can't imagine why I would need or want to know their gender, or they mine, as long as we all learn to adopt some non-offensive modes of address in communicating in writing with strangers.

Just last week I got yet another "Dear Sir" e-mail request from a person in another country for some information about my research. The fact that my correspondent did not recognize my name as female is understandable, but the assumption that scientists are male is obnoxious, and hence my advice to avoid gender-specific greetings in letters.

Furthermore, most of us know people with names that are ambiguous as to gender, whether by choice or their parents' choice. I have some female friends whose parents gave them traditionally male names, albeit with somewhat unusual spelling in some cases. Are these women obliged to inform everyone that they are female, no matter how irrelevant it is to their correspondence or business transactions? Perhaps their e-mail can be set with automatic stamps that say "This e-mail was sent by a female person". Is this more/less/just as relevant as knowing that someone sent you an e-mail from their iPhone?

Names give some information about a person, but in many cases names -- first or last -- don't give as much information as we might think. Consider all the women who change their last names when they marry. A cousin of mine recently acquired through marriage a certain ethnic heritage previously entirely absent from our family, and my step-mother-in-law, who is African-American, has a last name (acquired through marriage) that takes people aback when they meet her in person. So what? Are my relatives and others deceiving people by using these names?

In those cases, my answer is no. In the case of this particular blog, however, it is of course essential that someone who calls herself FemaleScienceProfessor be female because it would indeed be deceptive if I were not female. I want my readers to trust that I write from experience (unless otherwise noted), so it is important that I be (1) a professor, (2) a scientist, and (3) female.

But what if I had a blog that was entirely about cats? If I were not writing it specifically from the point of view of what an FSP thinks about cats, I should be free to call myself whatever I want.

43 comments:

zed said...

I recently requested a LOR for a person who applied for a postdoc with me. For reasons unknown to me, I referred to the applicant (who had a name whose gender was not obvious to me) as 'he'. I just assumed the applicant was male! And she wasn't. I'm shocked and disgusted that I did this, as I am a FSP, and consider myself very sensitive to these issues. In fact I have often been mistaken for a man in this same way (Dear Sir but also meeting someone for the first time at a conference who confessed to believing I was a man. My name is unusual but it's pretty clearly a woman's name). In the future I will be much more careful about this, but it just shows how pervasive such assumptions are.

Curt F. said...

I think you reach the right conclusion but by skirting close to some questionable arguments.

If using a "male" name to conduct business brings in more work for our erstwhile copyeditor, more power to her. If only I could think of such a quick, easy-to-implement way to instantly increase my income...

However, the people who argue against the practice have a point. People do have a right to know things about the person with whom they are contracting their business....if they ask!. It's not fraudulent to use a professional or stage name in lieu of one's real name -- if it were, porn stars and professional wrestlers would be in big trouble. But if a customer asked James, "Hey, I prefer to have my copyediting done by men. Are you a man?", then as bigoted as I would find the customer, I would think "James" would be obliged to say that she was not a man. And additionally, although I think only a boneheaded customer would ever make such demands, I hope that we could agree that customers should generally be free to make requests or demands that to us seem silly or unjust.

But that's just an exaggerated hypothetical. Again, just using the name "James" professionally does not really constitute of fraudulent deception in my book, and kudos to the copy editor for her success with it.

Just last week I got yet another "Dear Sir" e-mail request from a person in another country for some information about my research. The fact that my correspondent did not recognize my name as female is understandable, but the assumption that scientists are male is obnoxious

Related question: Do you read Nature? Do you think that when someone addresses you in formal correspondence as "Sir", they are assuming you are male? Many of those who would address you as "Dear Sir" probably are making that obnoxious assumption...But maybe some people aren't.

Anne said...

I think this is an important subject to talk about, but there's a very disturbing second chapter to this story. Not only did this woman take on a male name, but she took on a male persona, with full-blown sexism to boot, and wrote that way. There's a very interesting (and entertaining, I love those bloggers) dissection of the issue here: http://tigerbeatdown.com/?p=671

Anonymous said...

Just an interesting fact, Lithuania is the only country (and Lithuanian language) as far as I know where the surname shows if a woman is married or not. Male surnames typically end with -as, -is, -us, ys. Female surnames, if not married by -aitė, -ytė, -ūtė depending on what is the father's surname. Female surnames if married end by -ienė. For example if father is Adamkus, then daugther would be Adamkutė and wife Adamkienė, son would be also Adamkus. A few years ago a neutral option was introduced for female -ė (would be Adamkė), which does not indicate marital status. But it is not very widely used yet, often these sound weird, like nick names.

cat person said...

In agreement on all your points... except for the closing half-joke. Even as a male, I think I would prefer to label myself "Crazy Cat Queen" over "Crazy Cat Man", lest I be associated with Dennis Avner. And yes, I am writing this with a kitty on my chest. ^_^

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I most certainly agree, I can't wait until I get my PhD title so that I can scrap the Miss/Ms/Mrs title altogether! Not that I'm arrogant but rather I'm sick of people judging my work or my capabilities before they've even read my work, all because I'm female!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

For a while, some people thought the blogger known as Comrade PhysioProf was female. When it became apparent that he presents as male in "real life", a portion of those people thought it was fucking hilarious and a portion thought it was a fucking outrage.

Greg said...

Another post that I agree with 100%. On a similar note I find it interesting that many Chinese students will adopt an English name when the come to the US. Perhaps this is becoming less common now. I always found this strange and told those students they should be proud of their own name and it was our problem if we didn't understand it.

Now, can you please provide the link to your cat blog?

Catherine said...

Responding to Curt, about Nature: I can't find the piece, but Phil Campbell (chief editor of Nature) wrote a note to the Nature readership a while ago (1-2 years?) which interested me a bit. He said that, as long as he - a man - is the editor of the journal, then he found it appropriate that 'letters to the editor' begin with the address 'Dear sir...'. While I could still debate the merits of that choice, it made me happier to know that he had consciously thought about what the appropriate address was, rather than it just being an unconscious bias.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am an editor at Nature Chemical Biology (which I would guess impacts my awareness of the piece more than my opinion of it, but you never know).

alh said...

Wow, 28 years later and the premise for the TV show "Remington Steele" is actually a reality. I always thought it was quaint and funny, and a world that no longer existed. Now somehow I find it sad.

Anonymous said...

i always imagine that you're able to effectively hide your true identity because you are, in fact, male. hah!

John V said...

While the issues are all genuine, the basic fact I see is "James" was having trouble, took a new tack with a new personna building on her accumulating experience, and did better.

Certainly there are harmful stereotypes of women in many fields, which may have played a role here, but other possibilities exist for this particular sequence of events.

Here are ALL the details from her article: There were more comments on the blog ... Then my blog hit Michael Stelzner’s list. A quote from her interview on Newsweek: "How much did your pay rate go up when you changed your name?
It immediately doubled." Immediately doubled? Usually people get busier, then raise the rates gradually.
http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/thehumancondition/archive/2009/12/15/does-gender-matter-on-the-web-james-chartrand-thinks-so.aspx

The latest copyblogger entry (from someone else) is on how to secure a book deal from one's blog:
http://www.copyblogger.com/blog-to-book-deal/#more-6367
and she remains anonymous, talking only with selected reporters, and hasn't been interviewed in the last several weeks that I could see.

Great topic for discussion, and FSP's anecdotes are more compelling, but the "James" example seems very thin on details.

Anonymous said...

ZMOG FSP is really a dog I knew it!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Internet,_nobody_knows_you%27re_a_dog

ME said...

I just love the dear sir emails. I personally take them to mean that someone has not bothered to look at my website before emailing me to ask for a job as a post-doc, graduate research assistant, etc. If they had they would not have used dear sir. It is one of my filters for bulk mails (whether with 50 names in the to list or just a blanket mailing). So I quickly hit delete figuring if they can't bother to look at my website, I can't bother to reply saying I'm not interested in hiring them.

chemcat said...

how about the academic couples in which she's the brains and he's the front person? it used to be pretty common-- although unfortunately after many years of invisibility many women could not keep current.

On a related note: teaching evaluations. We noticed that on Ratemyprofessor women in my Chemistry dept are consistently rated much, much lower than men. Some men are even rated hot (as in, handsome) and believe me, my colleagues are without exception not particularly hot. Clearly it is easier for young women to have a crush on a crusty old prof than it is for a man in his 20s to have a crush on a 30+ yrs old woman... unless she's a Cougar.
Funnily enough, there is a couple, both foreigners, who run the lab together and teach the same course. We all know she made the slides, set up the course, etc. Their English is comparable- very good, some accent. Yet the students on that website invariably rate her lower, complain about her accent, and don't say much about the material. When they rate him they never comment on the accent, which is stronger than hers, and they praise his slides.

Anonymous said...

Dir Sir... I get a chuckle from this salutation as well. I do have a photo of me posted on my site, and I assume my gender is clear in the photo. My funniest email came from a perspective student who addressed me as Sir but it was clear in his letter that he also spent some time cutting and pasting my research as his research interests in the email...go figure!

Anonymous said...

I have wondered whether foreign graduate students are following a "template" formal letter when they right in English, a bit the way students do in a typing class. Almost every one of these formal letter templates in typing manuals until a decade ago started "Dear Sir". If you didn't know what the meaning of the word was, you might just copy the format without realizing that it was gender specific.

Anonymous said...

I have to point out that this anecdote proves nothing. Most of us here are scientists; let's be objective, shall we?

1) So this woman takes up a male pseudonym and finds some success.

2) Sample size=1. Enough to rule out pure chance?

3) Consider this. You want to search the internet for people whose luck turned around after they ordered MIRACLE SPRING WATER?

Do you know that every single Catholic Saint has to prove his/her worth through 3 confirmed miracles?

4) So, if this anecdote is meaningful evidence for systematic gender discrimination, I think there is overwhelming evidence for faith healing.

And yet, I have a feeling many posters on this board might not exactly be big fans of the Catholic traditions of exorcism, faith healing and miracles.

Double standards, anyone?

female Science Professor said...

Overreaction to a blog post musing about the significance of names, anyone?

Anonymous said...

I think the feminist crowd is being too quick to lay on the sexism slur.

Think again.

When this woman picked her new pseudonym, a male pseudonym no less, she says clearly that she was turning over a whole new leaf. A lot of soul searching must have gone into this. A new pseudonym meant she could chuck her old failures into the dustbin and begin afresh.

Has it ever occurred to you that when a desperate person who has hit rock bottom, decides to try and start in a whole new way, wriggles out of the negativity of past disappointment and pretends to be a whole new person, he/she just might succeed?

Maybe her male pseudonym helped her to take a brand new shot...and it worked. It reflects very poorly on the calibre of the members of the scientific community commenting on this board that they are rushing to their conclusion with an unsightly mob mentality, ruling out, in the process, perfectly valid alternative explanations.

I am shocked that a tenured science professor such as FSP, a million years my senior in the profession, would not spot such an obvious snag.

Anonymous said...

anon 4:28:00

I think you need to read the linked post more carefully. After she took on the male name, she also continued her old business under her old name with the same marginal success at actually attracting clients. She actually applied for some jobs with BOTH names with the male name invariably winning the "race". So if it were simply that she was getting better or more aggressive or hopeful, the gains should have applied to her work under both names since she was continuing to work under both names. However, this wasn't the case. She applied the same renewed effort to both, but invariably had much more success with the male name.

Alex said...

When this woman picked her new pseudonym, a male pseudonym no less, she says clearly that she was turning over a whole new leaf. A lot of soul searching must have gone into this. A new pseudonym meant she could chuck her old failures into the dustbin and begin afresh.

Has it ever occurred to you that when a desperate person who has hit rock bottom, decides to try and start in a whole new way, wriggles out of the negativity of past disappointment and pretends to be a whole new person, he/she just might succeed?

It is certainly true that this is not a perfect controlled experiment. It is indeed possible that the old name has some baggage attached from previous failures, while the new name has only the benefit of the fresh start and new leaf. However, as it is described it seems unlikely. She apparently didn't have much of a reputation yet when she chose a new name.

This story is an anecdote with a plausible interpretation. The fact that it is not a perfect controlled experiment does not mean that it simply cannot be discussed or analyzed at all. Otherwise, nobody would be allowed to talk about anything from their life experience without first getting IRB approval for whatever they do with human subjects (i.e. the people they are interacting with) and then having a professional statistician evaluate the results. That would be a boring and intellectually frustrating world, to say the least.

a physicist said...

Dear FSP,

Once again you have posted some information based on a small sample size (n=1 in this case). This now makes N = 802 examples of posts by you demonstrating apparently sexist behavior with a small sample size. Thus, I conclude from your N = 802 posts that you see sexism in everything. Sadly, I can't conclude anything from your N = 802 individual examples because each of them are individual, nor can I conclude anything from the N' = 1007 other bloggers posting similar individual examples. Nor do I believe any published studies showing sexism in science, because those studies are probably flawed since their conclusions make no sense to me.

Sincerely, various anonymous comments.

Anonymous said...

As I said, whenever you are tempted to draw conclusions based on this anecdote, try to ask yourself if there are similar anecdotes with regard to other standard bullshit out there....like miracle spring water and faith healing.

Even if you want to believe the sexism angle, don't you think you should mention, at least in passing, that pure chance is also a fairly plausible conclusion in this regard?

And what about the possibility that the new name helped her feel like she was making a new start. When you lose several times, you get sucked into the loser feeling and the loser feeling sabotages success. A drastic shift might help to ease that. Surely you find this to be a plausible phenomenon as well.

I don't see why either of these 2 possibilities is any less plausible than the sexism explanation. Yet none of these possibilities were even alluded to, either in FSP's original post or in the words of the knowledgeable commentators who followed suit. Don't you think it is DISTURBING that scientists would think in such a biased manner?

And notice the subdued manner in which FSP responded to my first post and so did "Alex". Both responses basically suggested that this anecdote is not that big of a deal and that my post analyses it more than it deserves to.

I gather that FSP kinda sees my point. What scientist wouldn't?

John V said...

First, I think the incomplete details of the "James" case do not undercut the validity of FSP's more general discussion - it is just one anecdote and she lists many in her post.

However, I suspect James had written the storyline to her coming-out post too neatly. I don't see how she can apply to the same job opportunities equally with two different names. Doesn't one require more than a name to apply for a job? Typically some portfolio, some references, and a pitch accompany a job application. How can she use the same references for two different names? Taken literally, there would be a companion site to the men-with-pens site (http://menwithpens.ca/guns-for-hire) - a women-with-pens site that was less successful. I doubt the women-with-pens site had the eye-catching bullet logo and slogan hit the bull's eye of success, although perhaps it was equally good.

This is not the controlled experiment in which only a first name has been changed.

Hope said...

@Anon 1/05/2010 04:14:00 & 08:29:00 PM – Huh?! How is this a response to what FSP wrote? Perhaps you could point out to me where, in this post, she says that this anecdote, in and of itself, is “proof” that sexism still exists in the world.

Can’t find it? Then maybe you should go away and think about why you are being so defensive about this – a claim that *you* injected into this post. Because really, you’re not fooling anyone around these parts – except maybe yourself.

@a physicist – Nor do I believe any published studies showing sexism in science, because those studies are probably flawed since their conclusions make no sense to me.

Wow – what a fantastic physicist you must be! Whenever you don’t understand a conclusion, it must be that the evidence (or analysis) is wrong. If only the founders of quantum mechanics had the courage to think this way, who knows where we’d be now….

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:14: I have to point out that this anecdote proves nothing. Most of us here are scientists; let's be objective, shall we?....2) Sample size=1. Enough to rule out pure chance?

actually, if you have read the rest of FSP's blog, as well as the blogs of other women, and comments on those blogs (not to mention if you talk to a lot of different women in person) you would see that sample size is most definitely > 1. You are zeroing in on one data point - i.e. this post - and assuming that this is the entirety of the data set that exists. This is like reading one paper (and not a review paper) and assuming it is all-inclusive of the entire field. As you said yourself, "let's be objective, shall we?"


"a physicist" :Sadly, I can't conclude anything from your N = 802 individual examples because each of them are individual, nor can I conclude anything from the N' = 1007 other bloggers posting similar individual examples. Nor do I believe any published studies showing sexism in science, because those studies are probably flawed since their conclusions make no sense to me.

So how can you believe your own alternative conclusion since they are also based on N=1 (i.e. yourself)? Where is the proof that your N=1 is more valid than FSP's N=800 and the other bloggers' N'=1007. And you don't believe any published studies showing sexism in science "because those studies are probably flawed since their conclusions make no sense to me." So if you are unable to understand the conclusions, then this proves that ALL the studies are flawed, rather than YOU being flawed? LOL!! Here's another "objective" one, folks!





Anon 4:28: It reflects very poorly on the calibre of the members of the scientific community commenting on this board that they are rushing to their conclusion with an unsightly mob mentality, ruling out, in the process, perfectly valid alternative explanations.


It also reflects poorly on the writer of this comment that he/she (but I suspect it's a 'he' , dunno why..) rushed to conclusion without even reading the article in question. (like the part about how she continued on with her old name at the same time as the pseudonym and it was the pseudonynm that got her further.)


It's hilarious how vehemently FSP's detractors accuse her of presenting opinion as fact, while they themselves do exactly the same with just as much outcry.

FSP, keep up the good work, your blog certainly raises social awareness both in the posts you write as well as in the revealing comments you receive.

Hope said...

I think that the James Chartrand incident “proves” that people who write misogynist crap are overcompensating … for something.

Seriously, though – what’s in a name? On the internet, I would argue, not much. People are free to choose pseudonyms or monikers that convey exactly as much (or as little) information as they want. So yes, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog (and maybe they don’t need to know) – unless you have a blog/website devoted to your doggie lifestyle. Then you can expect what you say to follow you around much closer than IRL, because that is the only way that people have of “knowing” you. (This goes for those that comment pseudonymously on blogs, too.) FSP may or may not be who she claims to be. The only way I have of “knowing” that is by reading her posts and asking myself if the whole picture rings true.

P.S. Thanks for the link, Anne.

Anonymous said...

It wouldn't be that hard to start a whole new portfolio. It sounds as if this person writes for clients who want items that are not necessarily public domain. One could easily begin a portfolio by taking items that are not public and replacing the name on them. As the pen name gains more clientele of its own, the writer could then begin replacing previous items with items written under the pen name. At a point where the two portfolios are completely different, one could then start using both real and pen names to apply for jobs with the same clients.

If done in this way, I think it makes the argument more convincing that this person was a victim of sexism, i.e. the same original portfolio resulted in a much higher response rate under a male name.

Of course, we all know that no one has ever examined response rates to job applications/resumes/CVs...

Oh wait, they have! And just a few days ago, too! http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2010/jan/01/job-discrimination-anonymous-cvs-report

Anonymous said...

I find it bizarre that many of these comments focus so much hatred/disdain on FSP for her lack of objectivity and apparent desire to see sexism in everything. If you go back and actually *read* her post, the news story in question is mentioned only tangentially, with FSP commenting not at all about whether it is sexist that James got more or less work or whatever as a man. She merely uses it as a jumping off point to discuss our rights/responsibilities in conducting professional business, which does/could have some link to gender but also does/could link to race, religion, and like or dislike of cats. In regards to the n=1 situation, again - FSP uses this story only tangentially, also noting situations that happen much more frequently (like the 'Dear Sir' letters when someone is clearly a out as a female on their website).

Not meaning to be snarky, but genuinely curious: why the hostility??

amy said...

a physicist says: "Nor do I believe any published studies showing sexism in science, because those studies are probably flawed since their conclusions make no sense to me." That is just about the most anti-scientific attitude I have ever heard. I thought scientists were supposed to objectively follow the data, even if the data lead to a conclusion they don't like.

Hope said...

@a physicist: Were you being sarcastic? Please reassure us! We don’t really “know” you well, so it’s hard to tell….

prosaica said...

A great post, FSP.

@Greg 07.20: many Chinese scientists I know choose to add an English name to their original one. I never asked them why, but it sure has the side effects of
1) making it clear what their gender is;
2) making it possible, or at least much easier, to find them or their papers through search engines (try the difference between having surname Camoranesi and Li);
3) avoiding most people you know the embarassment of severely mispronouncing your own name.

biogirl said...

When I read "a physicist"'s comment, I thought - good job, that about sums up what the anonymous people gotta say - it was hilarious! I am surprised many others didn't get the sarcasm!

rocketscientista said...

Reading a single author (somewhat rare in my field) paper in journal club, the entire room presumed the author was a male tenured professor, when in fact, she was a female graduate student! I think the audience would have reacted differently had they known. I plan on finding a similar paper when I present & seeing if the presumed gender/age difference changes anything.


The only time I've been addressed as "sir" was when I began receiving emails for a professional athlete with the same first initial and last name. Those were fun, though.

a physicist said...

Sorry, everybody!!! I honestly meant to include a "" at the end of my comment. Yes, I was trying to be sarcastic. I signed the post "Sincerely, various anonymous comments" to indicate who I was spoofing.

To emphasize, I believe nothing of my post, I was trying to be funny. I'm sorry that the humor was lost.

a physicist said...

ps: should have been a "backslash snark" in my comment.

Again, I'm sorry that I confused people, I was trying to be funny, not to be a troll. Biogirl, thanks for thinking it was funny, I'm glad someone did!

Hope said...

Thanks for clarifying that, a_physicist. And my apologies for the snide remark.

a physicist said...

No worries, Hope! I finally realized what I did. I typed (slash snark) at the end to indicate I had been snarky, but I used angle brackets and the comment editor treated it as bad HTML and erased it. I gotta remember to use the preview option more regularly.

I think my comments about ignoring published data stemmed from the discussion in FSP comments back on December 3, 2009. You can see my hopefully more reasonable take on published data there. In fact, since writing those comments back in December, I read the article in question and it was quite interesting and quite convincing ("Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors") ... although I was ready to believe the conclusions beforehand.

Anonymous said...

This name thing hits close to home, not for the gender bias, but for the cultural one. I will not be taking my fiance's last name (Chinese) for a number of reasons. One of them is that when my lab gets applicants with Asian last names (even US born, or have a long history in English speaking countries), most of the time they get disqualified for potential 'communication difficulties'. I would be double screwed.

Anonymous said...

I'm chinese but my husband is american (white). I don't use my married name professionally But sometimes in non-professional settings I do if it will be a big hassle not to (such as when it's somehow necessary to group you together with your husband as part of a couple). In that case I often get strange looks but I see no need to elaborate as it's no one's business why my name is or isn't what it is.

I have a friend who is also Chinese but was adopted. His adoptive family is white american thus his lastname is such. He also always gets weird looks all his life and he too never offers any explanation unless people ask directly.

We are living in the 21st century in america, people should by now know that things like interracial marriages or adopting foreign-born children are common and not hold themselves to narrow minded expectations of who should have what kind of name.

steph said...

How about Ben Barres, the male Stanford professor who is transgendered? I've heard a story that someone in his talk said something like "his work is so much better than his sister's", thinking that he actually been had been his sister, back when he was female. (that was a very hard sentence to write in terms of choosing pronouns...hope the meaning is clear)

Here's an article he wrote in Nature after the Larry Summers thing.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v442/n7099/full/442133a.html

George said...

"Perhaps their e-mail can be set with automatic stamps that say "This e-mail was sent by a female person". Is this more/less/just as relevant as knowing that someone sent you an e-mail from their iPhone?"

It's just as relevant. Not at all! =)