Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What's in a name?

A Rose by any other name may smell as sweet but would be more likely to pursue a career in math and science if you believe the results of a study by economist David Figlio that will be published soon in the Journal of Human Resources. I got the press release this morning, through the grapevine, which being as I live in the Petite Provence of Washington is very à-propos.

You can read the press release if you want to here. It is amusing, but I can tell you that it basically says girls with feminine names like Anna, Elizabeth, and Emily are less likely to study math and science after age 16 than their peers with more masculine-sounding names like Alex, Abigail, and Lauren which are evidently names judged to be less feminine. The conclusion is that girls with girly names live up to social expectations that they aren't any good at math.

Unfortunately the study has not been published yet so I could not read the article to determine whether this is junk science. Grrr.

It's great that interesting studies get good press, but the system that exists makes it incredibly difficult to critique a study at the time it becomes news. Later when the study is actually published, it's yesterday's long-forgotten news but people come away with the impression they should think carefully about what they name their kids because THE NAME WILL HAVE SERIOUS LIFE-LONG CONSEQUENCES!

Sure, the article went through peer review, but I suspect a lot of shitty science gets published because someone knows the editor or reviewers or someone else so the wheel gets greased. The author has published before on this topic - one I remember hit the press a few months ago - and said people with black names like "Shaniqua" fare more poorly in life than people with names like Robert and Elizabeth.

It may well be that girls with more masculine names end up being encouraged to pursue math and science or at least aren't subtly discouraged, but I think the findings may very well be the product of statistical error.

I don't know what the sample size is, but if it is large one can turn up statistically significant results with very small effect sizes. I would be incredibly surprised if the effect size for name on math/science achievement is large or even moderate. If it's a small effect, as I suspect it is, the finding is pretty much meaningless in real life.

Another problem is that there simply are not that many girls with gender incongruent names so the sub-sample size is small compared with the sample of girls with feminine names. Small sample size is associated with much more variance in outcome than large samples. Perhaps the 5 girls with masculine names just coincidentally happened to have pursued math and science. It's a statistical fluke.

If it is a real effect, then just what do teachers, peers, and parents do to get masculine-named girls to pursue math and science - AND - is the effect of NAME more or less damning than LOOKS?

Is it possible to be a very attractive woman and pursue math and science successfully?

Of course it is, but is it harder?

My personal observations and experience lead me to believe that pretty women have a much harder time in academia (the realm I am familiar with) than women who look less feminine. There's not a lot of make-up, trendy clothes, sexy hair and the like among women in academia, at least at work. It's a rather butch crowd in my experience.

Perhaps women have learned early in their careers that in order to be taken seriously and to not get sexually harassed as much when dealing with the old boys network, it's wise to tone down femininity.

Perhaps some combination of social pressure and niche selection is responsible for the finding that names affect career path. Or, maybe it is just a statistical fluke.

Either way, I won't be too concerned that my hypothetical daughter won't like math and science or excel in those subjects because I name her Elizabeth and everyone calls her Betty. Her parents will be surprised if she doesn't excel in those subjects given the kind of family and upbringing she will have! But if hypothetical daughter doesn't pursue math and science, the last thing I'd blame is her name and peer pressure.


Twice said...

This is very interesting. I will also be curious to see the study. In particular, for the sisters, I wonder if the controlled for things like number, gender and ages of other siblings and the like. I also wonder about the size of the twin sample. They do not specify identical twins, where name assignment is not mixed up with different DNA - and I wonder how much name assignment in same-sex fraternal twins may be tied up with perception of initial personality characteristics of an infant. Perhaps a more assertive female infant gets a name that is associated with "masculine" characteristics and is then treated this way. (Though I concede that some parents name baby A and baby B in utero.) Perhaps she is more assertive and therefore better able to resist pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. I do think names influence perception, but I wonder if this is too simple an explanation in this case.

My kids both have quite unusual names, but both have been names for centuries, just never popular. We'll see how that plays out.

My daughter has been extremely opinionated and assertive from the moment she was born. DNA? Testosterone exposure from her twin brother in utero? (Re: Dabbs - Heroes, Rogues, & Lovers: Testosterone and Behavior) Expectations set from the beginning by screaming loudly? Competition for resources and now toys? I don't know.

Chase said...

Hmmm, both my nom de plume and my daughter's actual name are traditionally male names...but names that occur just as often in females these days...

We know how well I did in school...will be interesting to see what happens with Piper!

estraven said...

I have a very feminine name (one of those that don't even have a male version) and I always was pretty butch, but then of course a person is a bit of a small sample.

I think you have a point with beauty being an obstacle to a science career. At least it had occurred to me to feel the same.

Maybe "beauty and women in science" could be a topic for a scientiae carnival?

Amelie said...

hm. Most of the girls in my science/engineering degree had rather female names... but again that's a small sample size.
Parents chose the name, and the gender images they "teach" their children. Though I certainly would not say that parents who pick female rather than neutral names, perhaps there is a correlation on the other side: people who prefer "classical gender roles" (what an euphemism) also prefer more classical girl's names?

Holly said...

I think a beauty and women in science would be a great carnival topic too.

Also, Amelie, I think you're roght, parents who prefer traditional gender roles are probably less likely to name their daughters something funky like Jack, Ryan, etc.

Ms .45 said...

"...feminine names like Anna, Elizabeth, and Emily are less likely to study math and science after age 16 than their peers with more masculine-sounding names like Alex, Abigail, and Lauren"

Huh? How are Abigail or Lauren "masculine sounding"??

"My personal observations and experience lead me to believe that pretty women have a much harder time in academia (the realm I am familiar with) than women who look less feminine."

Keep in mind that there's a pull factor *away* from academia - attractive women can make good money in respectable-ish jobs with their looks. I can make decent money as a policy wonk, but I'm never going to be asked to be a model as Cindy Crawford (who apparently did one term of Chemical Engineering) was.

lulu said...

"...feminine names like Anna, Elizabeth, and Emily are less likely to study math and science after age 16 than their peers with more masculine-sounding names like Alex, Abigail, and Lauren"

My name is masculine, and therefore I am supposed to be good at science and math? I was never terribly good at either.

As far as that study on "black" names goes, I have a fair number of African_American kids in my honors English classes, all of them have relatively traditional names: Stefanie, Nathan, Sabrina, Brenden, Latrice, Gloria, Katrina, Jackie. In my remedial class I have several kids with the "black" names, and no kids with traitional names, however, all of my honors kids also come from middle-class families, and none of the remedial kids do. I would imagine that the socio-economic background of the kid has a lot more bearing than the name.


Alasdair said...

I think Lauren's probably right about the socioeconomic thing. I also wonder if the socioeconomic thing has a lot to do with the name choice. Are poor black kids more likely to receive a more stereotypically "black" name? What about poor white kids?
Maybe more interestingly, what about rich and poor kids from South Asia who live here? Are kids with "poor" names viewed differently here than they would be in India in a way that translates to different outcomes in science and math performance?

Holly said...

That may very well be the case with the connection between SES and "black names" or "poor white" (southern?) names for that matter. I'm not as familiar with Figlio's other study.

This one about girls names was a twin study - so SES is the same for both. The press release doesn't offer a whole lot of information to determine how solid the methods are.

I would still be surprised if the effect was more than minimal!