To Change or Not To Change – Married Women Must Still Play The Game


Woman in a rowing boat

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

Okay, this is obviously not an issue which affects me directly (or even indirectly, for that matter), but reading this Wall Street Journal article did spark my interest. 

It seems that married women who keep their maiden name may be more likely to land the job than women using their married names, or hyphenated names. 

It makes sense that the average married woman using her maiden name may be more successful than the average married woman taking her husband’s name – aside from sociological factors (statistics for which I am simply too lazy to look up right now), there is most likely a genuine reason for this to be true.  The majority of women who get married after they have launched their careers would keep their maiden names.  As the Wall Street Journal article indicates, the more successful a woman’s career has been, the more likely she is to keep the name known in her industry.  And not surprisingly, medicine and the arts are the industries in which the name-recognition factor is most crucial.  In any case, it is not too far a leap to find that some people would form a prejudice, even if they don’t realize it themselves.

My wife and I have discussed this issue over the years.  Korean culture has a woman keeping her maiden name, and although their children bear their father’s family name, women’s identity is wrapped around the three syllables comprising their name.  (The Chinese characters behind their names are chosen very carefully, often by professional naming advisors.  There is a numerology built upon the number of brushstrokes necessary to write each character – after choosing the optimal number patterns, the parents then choose a name based on the attributes they wish to be most outstanding in their children.  It may take several weeks after the birth of a child before the baby has an actual name.)

But my wife’s given name is difficult for Westerners to pronounce.  My family practiced for a month before meeting her for the first time, and her colleagues have a shortened version to work with.  (In most cases, the pronunciation is still a little odd, and it seems to take people a lot longer to remember her actual name.)  Her family name, Lee, however is straightforward enough for Americans not only to pronounce, but to identify with her from the outset.

There was talk about my wife using the name “Lee Newman” – and amongst rarely seen neighbors, or in cases when we think we’ll never see the person again (such as a salesman), she is indeed known as “Lee”.  But she quickly nixed that idea for her professional career – not only for the myriad personal reasons (that is just not who she is), but because she was concerned about this false name masking who she truly was.  She assumed that anyone expecting a “Lee Newman” at their office receiving a foreigner with (so she worried) poor English language skills could only view her more negatively.

I don’t know that I agree with that particular reasoning, but it’s not my choice.  I had once envied women this choice – being raised in the 70’s, I truly do believe that women can do anything they want, that their lives are an open book – and regretted that men still were not allowed many of these options, at least not as easily.

But I can also recognize that women rarely have anything easier than men do this in the world (with a few key exceptions), and I don’t begrudge them the few advantages SOME can glean from the system. 

Until reading the above WSJ article, however, I had thought that the option for a married woman to choose her own name was a win-win situation for them.  Whether the woman wanted to keep her individuality, or make her family feel more united, or secure her career brand, or simply ditch an unfortunate moniker, it always seemed to me that while there may be some hurt feelings along the line, women’s options in this area only strengthened them.

It would not be a stretch to see all of these prejudices, and more, play against a woman in the job hunt. 

It is bad enough for the average job hunter out there.  In even the fairest of situations, there are thousands of competitors, all screaming for attention and putting forth their own efforts to climb to the top of the pile.  Over the course of being unemployed, job hunters find their likelihood to find a position decrease steadily as their self-esteem decreases exponentially.  And as they worry about how to provide for their families, these same downtrodden people are told that they’re “overqualified”, and turned away from even taking voluntary steps backwards in their careers.

As we are asked more and more frequently to sell our own personal “brand”, women might be getting a conflicting message.  With the more opportunities for choice that women have, the more dangerous the situation then becomes.  What to wear for an interview – suit with skirt or pants?  With either choice there is a possibility that the interviewer might respond negatively to that choice.  How much makeup is okay to apply?  Perfume?  What about shoes – are open toes acceptable?  How high for the heels?  What about stockings?  Men have thankfully few such questions before an interview, thanks to our culturally limited options.

My incredibly intelligent cousin is also hunting for a job – since receiving her Master’s degree she has had a couple of interesting part-time and temporary positions but she just hasn’t been able to find that right opportunity yet.  And it’s been a while for her as well.  But one of her issues is that she looks much younger than she is.  (She was said to have exclaimed recently after watching the below commercial, “Suzie looks older in her suit than I do!”)

Now a woman’s own name is coming into question.  The job hunter’s name is the first thing recruiters and hiring managers learn about a candidate.  Obviously in the vast majority of cases people will not be able to distinguish between a maiden name and married name from a resume, though usually job applications require listing alternate names for verification purposes.  But with the increasing reliance on professional social networking, dating back to school days, a woman might be required to give both names at the outset.

Again, hopefully in the vast majority of cases these things simply have no impact whatsoever on the judging of the candidate.  But even the most enlightened of hiring managers may be unwittingly prejudiced against a candidate for any of the reasons mentioned above, or more.  There may be some cases such as my wife’s, where a disparity between prejudice and actuality may leave a hiring manager focused on all the wrong issues.  Hyphenated names might indicate indecisiveness to the wrong hiring manager, or simply seem too multi-syllabic for some of these people to want to remember.  And sometimes it takes just one vote of the interviewing panel to raise one candidate over another. 

Whatever the case, here is yet another guessing game for job hunters to have to face.  To all the women out there, more power to you.

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