We’ve already written about how men with one-syllable names tend to make more money. Which, as we said at the time, makes sense — the shorter the name, the easier it is to remember. “When we do taglines, we make it short and concise,” Alex R., an art director at a prominent creative agency in L.A., told us earlier this year.
But a recent study from Cornell University found that calling men by their last name also gives them an unfair career boost. Psychologist Stav Atir decided to examine the phenomenon after she noticed that male politicians seemed to be referred to by their surname more than their female counterparts. Case in point: Hillary versus Trump. “I wanted to find out if this pattern really existed, and if so, does it have any consequences,” Atir told New Scientist.
To do so, Atir and her colleague, Melissa Ferguson, conducted a series of studies, one of which included analyzing nearly 5,000 student reviews of their professors. In another, Atir and Ferguson asked 184 volunteers who had been issued identical bullet points about the works of fictional chemists Dolores Berson or Douglas Berson to rewrite the information in full sentences. Based on their analysis, they found that both men and women were twice as likely to refer to men by their last name than they were women. “In the Berson experiment, they were four times as likely to do so,” reported New Scientist.
So what does last name versus first name have to do with the gender pay gap? Well, Atir and Ferguson found that scientists referred to by their last name tended to be judged as more famous than those referred to by their first name. As such, in their follow-up experiment, they asked 500 participants to rate whether scientists referred to by full name or last name only should be awarded a $500,000 grant award. The result: The scientists referred to by last name only were 14 percent more likely to be recommended for the award.
Geoffrey Greif, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland who examines male relationships, tells me by email that the findings surprised him. “Usually, single name famous people — e.g., Cher, Madonna, Shaq — are iconic and need no other descriptions,” he writes over email. “We all know who they are. Last names are certainly used with people that aren’t well thought of; first names among men who are peers can show affection and familiarity, to show that the speaker is on a first name basis with someone.”
How to explain, then, that a lot of men call their friends or teammates by their last name to express a certain level of closeness and friendliness? Speaking for myself, on nearly every sports team I was ever on, I answered to every pronounceable variation of my last name. Weirdly, Greif tells me this has less to do with respect and camaraderie and more to do with the fact that men generally feel uncomfortable showing too much affection for each other. “Last names evince a kind of toughness if men are uncomfortable with too much intimacy,” says Greif. “‘I praise you but I also keep you a bit at arms’ length’ — first names may be more intimate.”
For that reason, Greif says that he would have expected the reverse of the findings in the study. He does, however, wonder what the age of the men were in the study, and if that was a variable in that the younger men were more likely to use last names than older men — a sign that could be interpreted as emotional distancing or a sign of respect.
Somewhat contradicting the result of her own research, Atir suggests that in order to combat the unfair career boost given to men by calling them by their last name, we should refer to women by their full name. Acclaimed French physicist Marie Curie, for example, is most often referred to by her full name rather than her last name alone (compare this to, say, Einstein or Newton). According to Atir, this serves women better in highlighting their contribution, because when most people hear just a last name, they tend to think the person being referenced is male.
As mentioned above, though, this again leaves us with the problem of potentially taking away from a professional woman’s eminence: Surely someone as important as Curie should be known simply by her last name? Sadly, it seems this won’t be possible until people stop assuming that every important last name belongs to a man.