Keep Your Maiden Name, Earn $500,000 More?

Keep Your Maiden Name, Earn $500,000 More?

If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, would a Rose by any other name earn as much?

It depends on whether we're talking about Rose (née) Lee, Rose Jackson, or Rose Lee-Jackson.

According to a recent study from the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research in the Netherlands, women who kept their maiden names were perceived to be more "independent, intelligent, ambitious and competent" than their married-name or hyphenated-name counterparts. In fact, when study participants had to give a hypothetical salary amount to one versus the other, maiden-named women were valued at about $1,172.36 more per month. Over a lifetime, that adds up to more than $500,000.

Yes, we knew it cost some money to change your name (around $100 to $500), but apparently the hidden costs are a lot steeper.

Nice to Meet You, Mrs. Smith

The study comprised several experiments, all of which yielded the same results. First, participants were asked to imagine meeting a married couple at a party. Some met a couple introduced with the same last name, and some met the same couple introduced with different last names. When asked to rate whether the women were caring, competent, dependent, intelligent and emotional, the married-name woman was deemed more caring, dependent and emotional. The maiden-name woman was seen as more intelligent and competent.

In a job interview experiment, participants saw resumes for "Roos Ellemers" with attached memos indicating that (1) she was named Fischer before marrying Dirk Ellemers, or (2) she is married to Dirk Fischer. The second set of Rooses was judged more ambitious and intelligent, was more likely to be hired and nabbed that higher monthly salary.

Is It Baloney?

If you've heard about the study already, you may be familiar with the caveats that run alongside it. First, the study was conducted on the Dutch population. Whether or not their views on hiring and sexism match America's is debatable, but the Netherlands is generally considered a rather egalitarian society. Secondly, the participants were students, so some have argued that the results are to be taken with a grain of salt, as students aren't actually making hiring decisions in the workplace.

But they will be later, right? And aren't students even more open-minded and egalitarian than older folks--the ones currently making the hiring decisions?

Statistically, there has always been a strong correlation between women who keep their maiden names and higher earnings in the workplace. In the U.S., the percentage of women who keep their maiden names has shot up from 4% in 1975 to around 20% today. Women who keep their maiden names earn more, have higher levels of education and have fewer children. (If you're working and considering having children, learn more about maternity leave.)

Statistically, there has always been a strong correlation between women who keep their maiden names and higher earnings in the workplace.

But correlation isn't causation, and it's easy to see the correlation--women who keep their maiden names tend to do so for professional reasons. After all, it's not quite the same to think of Gloria Bale (instead of Steinem), Joan Dunne (instead of Didion), Anna Shaffer (instead of Wintour) and Barbara Katz, Guber or Adelson (instead of Walters). And speaking of Walters, the possibility of divorce adds another incentive to hold on to a maiden name, at least professionally--how many times will one change names over a lifetime if there is more than one marriage?

You Choose: Caring or Competent

The study suggests that maiden names and higher salary might not just be correlative, but slightly causal (or the correlation creates the causal relationship). This theory holds some weight, because it's not the first time that bias in job interviews has been shown based on as little as names (see this study on white- vs. black-sounding names here).

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What's frustrating is that the women with married names were perceived to be more emotional and caring--also positive qualities, although apparently not as valued in the workplace. Would you rather be seen as caring or competent? Emotional or intelligent? Can't we be both, you ask? In reality, sure, but maybe not according to some instinctual hardwiring that triggers our binary snap judgments.

So what to do with this strange dilemma? Will you really boost your earning potential if you hold on to your maiden name? What about those women who have already changed their names--is it worth changing it back in the workplace?

Take Biases Into Account

You know you're insanely smart and angelically caring all at the same time. But work is often about managing perceptions, and if women have to fight against a "caring/competent" dichotomy, consider this:

  • Keep your maiden name, even if just in a professional setting--hey, if it isn't a major issue, it can't hurt
  • Don't plaster your cubicle with a zillion photos of your kids, friends and cute furry animals (just put up a few tasteful ones--keep the rest on your phone)
  • Hang a samurai sword above your desk and wear your poker face

Just kidding on the last one. Even your poker face can't help you get your work done well, and at the end of the day, that's really what makes your salary bump.


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