Not so much, actually.

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgI’m part of a team submitting a proposal to NASA, and as such, I had to register in the NASA proposal tracking system, creatively named NSPIRES. But I was a little less than inspired when I got to the first step of the registration process. The screen shot and my analysis are below the fold.

nspires registration

The last name on my birth certificate has nothing to do with my professional identity and I don’t want an automatically generated username (or similar) that I’m not going to remember because I would never use my birth last name for that purpose. My name change didn’t come through marriage, but 81% of US women do change their names upon marriage. So an awful lot of women scientists (and some men, too) could have the same reaction I did upon seeing the page. Why ask for the name on the birth certificate? Why not just ask for your name? Is this supposed to simplify things somehow? (FWIW, I used my current name rather than the one on my birth certificate. I suppose NASA’s going to hunt me down now.)

The second part of the registration included the typical security challenge questions. You pick the question from a predefined list and then provide your answer. Want to bet which choice irked me?

“What is your mother’s maiden name?”

My mother’s name is the same as my last name. She didn’t change her name when she got married and neither did I. So I’d be answering that question with the last name I’d given them above.

These sorts of things make me twitch. Assuming in one spot that people have (or at least are willing to use) the same name as on their birth certificate, and then in another spot assuming that mothers change their name when they got married (or were married at all for that matter) is the sort of thing that reminds me that we have a lot of small steps still to take before we achieve gender neutrality.


  1. #1 rageyone
    August 28, 2008

    Ohhhh…I totally feel what you are saying. Those challenge questions are quite annoying, and most of the time aren’t really secure. There’s an article on the Red Tape Chronicles ( addressing this same issue.

    My place of employment has a system that we use to view our pay stubs, submit leave, and other things. There are challenge questions and it states that answers have to be at least 5 characters. Hmmm…how does that work when the answer to the question that you would remember is 4 characters! For example, one of the questions is the name of your childhood best friend. If that person’s name is Troy, Bill, Jill, Joan, etc., what are you supposed to do? How annoying.

  2. #2 Lisa
    August 28, 2008

    So, did the username you were given indeed include parts of the last name you gave them? It seems a lot sillier if they keep using the birth certificate name, instead of just asking once when they set up the account (which seems strange anyway).
    I take the challenge questions as just possibilities–for instance, those who were homeschooled may not have a favorite high school teacher, but this is a nice security question for those of us who do have a favorite high school teacher. I just want them to provide a lot of questions which could apply to people in many different situations.

  3. #3 C
    August 28, 2008

    I have my mother’s maiden name also, and I’m always kind of amused when I get that as a question. It’s a totally unexpected answer.
    The amusement dies as soon as I get the, “No, your mother’s maiden name” (with suitable emphasis) comment however.
    And I do absolutely see your point about the sexism.

  4. #4 6EQUJ5
    August 28, 2008

    Challenge question: WTF
    Challenge answer: WTF

    Secondly, the birth name, place, and date are sufficient to impersonate you.

    Thirdly, NASA has a long history of male supremacism. They used to list names on communiques in the format “J SMITH”.

    When they were forced to admit women (aside from the secretarial pool), they added title abbreviations. In a long list of “MR …” there would be a “MRS …” or a “MISS …” which stuck out like red flags, readily identifying the women, and their marital status.

  5. #5 SimonG
    August 28, 2008

    Just because the question asks for your mother’s maiden name doesn’t mean that’s what you have to answer. The hard part is remembering. Smarter systems let you make up your own questions,

  6. #6 Jennie
    August 28, 2008

    I guess I’m so use to the “mother’s maiden name” that it never struck me as sexist. I guess they could change it to mother’s maiden or current last name ?
    My mother and I have never shared a last name and she is currently on her third last name and I’m guessing if she ever gets married again she will change it again.
    I actually get agitated when that question isn’t one of the options since it’s easy for me to remember. I hate the favorite hs teacher. Favorite pet is a fun one.

  7. #7 Becca
    August 28, 2008

    The “name on birth certificate” thing is a little weird, unless it makes it easier for the Government Security team to make sure no Bad People are Infiltrating NASA. In which case it would make sense, but it’s creepy.

    The challenge question thing doesn’t phase me. You can go with whatever you like(“Mothers maiden name: Lonicera japonica”)… it really doesn’t matter, so long as you know what you used. It’s probably much more secure than anyone’s actual mother’s maiden name anyway.

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    August 28, 2008

    Ah, yes, NSPIRES, the system which inspires me to curse the site designers every time I use it. Once you actually start using it, you will probably find it to be one of the more gratuitously user-hostile sites out there (though at this point it becomes equal-opportunity user-hostile). Information that you have to supply several times per proposal even though it won’t change within a proposal (e.g., the cognizant official for Mystery U’s overhead rates), hidden buttons for editing things, and the like.

    I’ll count myself as lucky that I got carried over from the previous system. (Which was called, and I swear I am not making this up, SYS-EYFUS. I suspect somebody familiar with Greek mythology put one over on his boss who didn’t; the story of Sisyphus bears a more than slight resemblance to the lifestyle of a soft money scientist.) Asking for the name on your birth certificate is simply inane: What about people who were adopted? What about people born in places where they don’t use the Roman alphabet–does that field accept Unicode characters? The only situation in which I could even conceive of that information being relevant would be if somebody (1) published a paper under her birth name, (2) then got married and changed her name, and (3) subsequently published under her married name. Even then, it would only be to establish that F. M. Maidenname and F. M. Lastname are the same person. And I suspect that such cases are rare: I know a few female scientists who changed their name upon marriage, but AFAIK they got married before publishing their first paper.

  9. #9 squawky
    August 28, 2008

    I’ve done the register with NSPIRES thing as well — I think the “name on your birth certificate” question is just part of their security system. If you ever need to look up your username (if you didn’t use something memorable), then that’s how it will start to look for you.

    (Or, at least, that’s how I’ve found my account in the past.)

    I seem to recall that you can change your contact details in other places on the site as well.

    The security questions are new and are the typical useless questions — I prefer the ones that let you choose your own question, in case the defaults don’t apply (or you don’t want to enter your mother’s maiden name on yet another website…. )

  10. #10 squawky
    August 28, 2008

    (And just to add my two cents – I much much much prefer using NSPIRES to submit proposals than to use, whose forms make me want to yank my hair out… and require emailing to our research office, so the proposal can’t be over a few MB in size.)

  11. #11 yttrai
    August 28, 2008

    Hooray antiquated thinking 😐

    I am in a similar conundrum to you, except that my question would have to be “WHICH birth certificate?” After my step dad adopted me, somehow i got issued a new birth certificate which lists him as my bio dad. I have NO clue how my mom got this past whomever is supposed to check up on these things. But the upshot is, i have two notarized and as far as i can tell perfectly legal birth certificates, so that username would be a 50/50 shot for me as well.

  12. #12 NASA Fan
    August 28, 2008

    Okay the birth certificate thing is a little weird.
    But for 6EQUJ5,
    I don’t know about past history, but my husband is a current NASA employee. From what I’ve observed, NASA is an extremely family friendly place for employees and has a well integrated workplace. My husband’s chain of command includes two women in senior leadership.

  13. #13 Carrie
    August 28, 2008

    Is the appropriate place to tell my story about going to the Dr and having the receptionist tell me that I filled out the registration form incorrectly because I didn’t use the correct last name. And me getting very confused because I did use my name, and her insisting it couldn’t be right, because my husband’s last name (on the insurance card) was different.

    I hate the mother’s maiden name question. Hate it.

  14. #14 Rachel
    August 28, 2008

    Isn’t naming fraught and complex!

    I like the idea of having one name for work and another for home.

    To give NASA their due, I suspect it was to deal with people who forget their log-ins, and given that people change names across their lifetime, normally, you have only one birth certificate, so what is on there shouldn’t change.

    Better to pick your own name though (although I could see it being conveneint for them not to have to deal with “Nobelprize2010”, “hotrods” and “brainybrian” but something which vaguely resembles a person.)

    As for the security question, I think Mother’s Maiden Name used not to be well known, but now its so ubiqitous a question that it’s hard to see it as being secure. It doesn’t bother me that it’s a choice, although I can see why it would some.

    I distrust “favourite” questions because that can change. Write your own is better.

    As for the “birth certificate” name, it assumes scientists don’t change their professional name on marriage. You could say it assumes that women in science don’t change their name, but their mothers did! Or it assumes that scientists are all men.

    I’ve been reading recently about the Portugese naming convention, where children usually get their mother’s and father’s names, men and women can take each others’s surnames. I think Portugal have a great system, where you can pick the names you want to be known by – choose 1 of 4 surnames, and then give your children the combination you prefer in the order you prefer to acknowledge the family net.

    They do make you choose from a list of given names (so no twins called Benson and Hedges, or Masport and Mower, or Tallulah does the Hula from Hawaii) But also not Kaycee for the child of Kevin and Celia (for those who like that sort of thing.) And there is flexibility to use diminuitives (ronaldinho for ronaldo and so forth)

    First and Last for NASA at least avoids “Christian” name and Surname at least, so it would work with Asian names (where the family name is first, and the given name last) and Portugese names where the individual can have 2 given names and 4 surnames, and be known by the 2nd given and 3rd surname.

    E.g. someone called Maria Teresa Thierstein Sim�es Ferreira Heinz Kerry , might like many Portugese with the first name Maria go by her second name Teresa, and choose any surname.

    She could still fill in the NASA form Maria Kerry, but live her life as Teresa Theirstein (or, as she does, Teresa Heinz)

    I wish passports were a bit more accomodating in this regard (although I understand why they are not)

  15. #15 KS
    August 29, 2008

    Frustrating, ridiculous, and pointless? Yes. Set up to make you feel bad about being a female scientist? Nope. Not everything is designed to exclude those outside of the expected norm, and we only make it worse by seeking it out when it isn’t there.

  16. #16 Carrie
    August 29, 2008

    KS — what the heck are you saying? I don’t think we’re implying that the system was designed to deliberately exclude those outside the ‘norm’ (and who’s norm is that, anyway?), but the fact that it didn’t take into consideration a rather significant portion of the population who doesn’t fit the norm is so typical of what women in science often experience. We’re not seeking out what isn’t there — we’re just documenting the routine experiences we have navigating our working environments.

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