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.