Ashley Likes Science! But Not Isabella

When I lived in North Carolina, I got to know a woman who worked in one of the Research Triangle labs. She had a baby girl, and I occasionally baby-sat for her. She had named her daughter Melina, which I thought was an incredibly beautiful name for a little girl. I remarked upon this one time, and she said to me "yeah, I like it, and I figure when she's a little older she'll be nicknamed Mel, which isn't too girly."

Melina's mother did not fit any "girly" stereotypes. She had rennovated her house pretty much on her own; she didn't dress in typical feminine garb, and she was, of course, a scientist. She wasn't going to raise any girly-girls. She picked Melina's name very, very carefully.

According to UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, she was being a good and smart parent. Because girly-girl names mean your little girl won't grow up to do math or science. Or so says David Figlio, professor of economics at the University of Florida, author of a study of 1,000 pairs of sisters in the U.S.

Sheril at The Intersection has written about Mr. Figlio's study, and Bora has weighed in over at A Blog Around the Clock.

Mr. Figlio wants us to know that just naming your daughter Alex versus Isabella is enough to change the course of her entire life. That's it. Just the name.

Figlio argued that people should be more aware of the power of names. 'In ways we are only beginning to understand, children with different names but the exact same upbringing grow up to have remarkably different life outcomes,' he said.

I don't know about you, but I have two sisters, and none of the three of us had the same upbringing. Our upbringing depended a lot upon our place in the sibling chain, our relationships with our other siblilngs - for example, I didn't have a relationship with myself as a younger sister, but my older sister did, and vice versa.

Then there's the whole question that if you name one daughter Isabella and another Alex - are you not likely to treat them a little differently because you have a different idea in your mind of what those two names mean? Perhaps you named Alex after a beloved grandfather, who was an engineer, whereas Isabella was named after the grandmother, who sat at home and crocheted intricate doilies. Names are not neutral. My older sister was nicknamed Princess. On the other hand, my name came from the child of a cousin next door, who was born "out of wedlock" - an incredible scandal back then. Do you think the oldest girl Princess, or the second girl named after the bastard, was more likely to be treated in an unconventional manner in her upbringing?

But go ahead, pretend the upbringing is identical, 'cause it's better for your publication.

Sheril comments:

But back to the research suggesting that girls with names that have a high femininity rating are less likely to excel in math and science. Call me a naysayer, but how could this study possibly not be culturally and personally biased? Though I'm sure the researchers made every attempt to maintain objectivity, keeping one's expectations out of the findings given you're looking for disparity seems near impossible. Remember Clever Hans?

And Bora critiques the study from the point of view of class issues:

What bothers me most about the study (and Sheril touches on that somewhat) is the definition of 'feminine'. What is it? Who's asking? Does 'feminine' mean pale, thin, silent wallflower? Or chick with a nice sat of T&As?

And this is where, I think, the study reveals not so much sexist thinking as classist! The names that are considered "soft" are also names considered to be "aristocratic", names you find in the lineage of the British Monarchy, for instance. The "hard" names are considered to be more masculine because they are also considered to be more proletarian - names of people you can encounter actually doing hard work.

What also bugs me about the whole thing is that Figlio and Mehrabian, who wrote a book called "Baby Name Report Card", suggest that their findings mean parents should just all strive to pick conservative, appropriate, "non-girly" and non-ethnic names for their kids, 'cause that's the way the world is. The world is bad, and we must all adapt to the world. Not even a hint of an idea that we might, say, use these findings to talk with math and science teachers about unconscious bias and how to work against it. No, the onus is on all of us with weird and girly names to conform to the norm. Social change is not an option. It's not even a topic of discussion.

Another things that drives me nuts is the apparent lack of awareness of e.g. Virginia Valian's gender schema research. For example, we know that people - women and men - are likely to evaluate women as less likable and less competent than men, when presented with the exact same evidence. Names don't matter, except insofar as they signify gender. What's useful about this study is that it looks at something we can actually measure - peoples' attitudes towards written material they are presented with - as opposed to making all sorts of dubious assumptions, like the notion that two girls in a family receive exactly the same upbringing, are treated exactly the same by their parents.

Figlio may or may not have discovered a real effect, but characterizing his results as solely the outcome of bestowing a name takes the agency out of the gender socialization that goes on, and the actions that occur as a result of our implicit biases. It deflects the actions and agency of individuals, and the effect of structural inequities, onto names which just exist as floating signifiers, unattached to anyone who could be responsible for anything. It offers an easy fix - just give them a guy-ish name! - for a whole set of societal ills that leaves the underlying issues unchanged and untouched. Framing his research in this way is a de facto apologia for the status quo.

More like this

I will go a little off on a tangent, so I apologize. But speaking about names - and I wanted to ask you this for some time now - shouldn't Zuska be really spelled Zuzka?

Beautiful, thank you.

So, I wonder, does the same awesome power reside in boys' names, or can you safely name your son Poindexter, or Jock, without any effect whatsoever?

The "femininity" index sounds like it's just a cultural conformity index--if your name uses letter combinations that are found in names that have been given to many other girls in the population, it's scored more feminine. Assuming the UCLA research is using US name statistics, how would that index classify first names from India, China, Japan, Korea, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, etc. etc., that don't follow the same conventions?

(One more point--do remember that the granny who "crocheted intricate doilies" may have had a very mathematical mind too--needlework patterns can be complicated, and women who created their own patterns in the past were often using the handiest outlet available for expressing their skill and pleasure in geometry, spatial reasoning, precise measurement, etc. And then think about the chemistry knowledge involved in dying homemade yarns and fabrics... ;) )

@Penny: Loved your needlework discussion!!

For anyone interested in naming, Freakonomics also has a lengthy discussion about names in the African-American community. Names do affect our daily lives on more than one level. For sure my Chinese name confuses people.

What if you read it this way: children with different names who were brought up by the exact same parents had different outcomes. That could still be the fault of the name, anyways.

This seems like one of those studies that is basically impossible to do well because there's too many uncontrolled variables. But I gotta say, the outcome seems perfectly plausible to me.

One thing not mentioned in the article is the possibility of a nickname. Isabella could always have a more boyish nickname; it doesn't even have to be related to her name.

There probably is some truth in the fact the name influences what you become because of people's attitudes to your name and their impression of what it means. When I was a teenager, I was told I was more of a "Sam" than my possibly girlish name. Probably my assertive and independent behavior made people think a more boyish name suited me better. I am, however, fond of my shortened first name. That said, I am the only scientist in my family. Perhaps my brother's name (Maurice) was too feminine for a mathematician and that is why he switched for his PhD, from Math to History of Art.

On the upbringing front, my Mum said she had problems with me as she tried to bring me up the same way she had my brother but, surprise, it didn't work.

Penny - thanks for your take on the doilies. It's absolutely true - another great example is quilting, which is very geometric and mathematical. But, of course, it's just "wimmin's work" so never recognized as having anything to do with math...

Regarding Zuska: I have no idea how it's "supposed" to be spelled. I spell it the way it sounds to me. It's what my Grandfather used to call me when I was little. The way I spell it is the way it looks in my mind when I hear it or think of the sound. I've always wanted to talk to someone who knows Slovak and ask them how that sound combination would be spelled. The way it is pronounced, the first part "Zus" sounds like the "bus" in bush (which is the only thing I have in common with Dubya), without the h sound modifying the s. Then add "ka" as in the first syllable of kaput.

And that's the end of my name story for now.

Jeffk, that seems to me about all you can say: children brought up by the same parents had different outcomes, for some reason. Oh, by the way, they had different names, too.

For some other perspectives on the study, read what Gene Expression has to say - wonderful critic of the statistics of the study. Also, check out Joanne Jacobs on this. The comment thread on Joanne Jacobs is well worth a read, too. Lots of good stuff in there. Many, many thanks to Bora for pointing me to both of these posts via the links in his post on the subject.

> Oh, by the way, they had different names, too.

Not quite. With a large enough sample, you can definitively determine that names with certain attributes (like beginning with a vowel) will be predictors of the outcome (math tests, etc). Why, exactly, isn't clear. The problem, as you discussed if the coding of names as either masculine or feminine, hard or soft, etc which is deeply subjective and invites rigging - this name doesn't fit the pattern? Well, it must be masculine then!

I'd like to see the same study run on Korean or Farsi or Xosa kids and see what they come up with knowing not a damn thing about the connotations of the names. But then, that wouldn't sell books to obsessive parents, would it?


By Elizebeth Kraft (not verified) on 20 Jun 2007 #permalink

I actually am Slovak. Slovak equivalent of the name Suzanne is Zuzana and a nice way to call Zuzana is Zuzka (sounds like what you described). There are also other ways to call Zuzana, for example Zuzanka or Zuza (Zuza is not as nice as Zuzka or Zuzanka). It took me quite some time after I have seen your blog for the first time to put the two together and realize that Zuska is probably Zuzka.

Anon, thank you for writing! My grandfather died when I was only 8, and I never thought to ask him how it was the time I wondered such things as an adult, there was no one left in my family who spoke Slovak.

But now I feel bad, I've been spelling it wrong the whole time (which I suppose should not surprise me). I think at this point I shall probably have to stick with the wrong spelling for the blog. But I'll definitely tell Mom I learned how to spell Zuzka!

The study hasn't been published yet. Should you wait for it to come out and read it before you criticize it? The news article hints that the sisters in the study were twins. That doesn't mean they were raised identically, but it does eliminate most of the birth order varible. If the girls weren't twins, the author may have corrected for birth order.

Figlio also didn't say girls with girly names won't grow up to study math and science. He said they were less likely to study math or physics after age sixteen. The career path bit was the addition of the reporter.

By Frumious B (not verified) on 21 Jun 2007 #permalink

Isn't it also important to consider that the social context of a name may change over the course of someone's life?
Twenty years ago, I would guess that Hillary would have been considered a fairly conservative name, but how many conservatives do you think are naming their daughters Hillary these days?
I'm not sure what exactly would make a name more or less scientific sounding, but in our celebrity obsessed culture, it only takes one Britney, Paris or Lindsay to alter people's perception of that name.

Well, George Foreman (boxer and grill maker) has a whole bunch of boys, all named "George", so it should be possible to study his kids to find out the effect of birth order vs. name. :)

There is also another aspect of this that it seems was not studied - what are the effects of the parenting styles on children with common names. Are parents who are more likely to give a female child a 'girly' name those who will also treat their daughters like princesses? And are parents who are more likely to give a female child a 'masculine' name more likely to treat their daughter as an equal to their sons? I guess it all goes back to the nature vs. nurture debate....