Keeping Your Last Name: Can Freelancers Afford to Change Names?

When I married my husband, I didn’t even think about changing my last name. He asked once or twice, just to make sure we were on the same page, but it was a non-issue for both of us. Of course, both my family and his address all my mail to Mrs. Swenson, but no one else seems particularly concerned with my decision either way.

But this week, I’ve been thinking about what names really tell the people we talk to, especially online — most of our interactions are text, so we all make judgment calls based on names and tiny profile pictures. I even wrote about whether a male name has an affect on business over on Grow Smart Business earlier this week. But there are far more factors than just whether or not you have a feminine name. Your surname can play a part (and in ways you might never expect).

Less Professional Respect with a New Name

Among other things, studies imply that a woman who keeps her name after marriage has a better chance of landing work and earning more:

Women who took their partner’s name appear to be different from women who kept their own name on a variety of demographics and beliefs, which are more or less associated with the female stereotype (Study 1). Subsequent studies show that women’s surnames are used as a cue for judgment (Studies 2-4). A woman who took her partner’s name or a hyphenated name was judged as more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent, and less ambitious in comparison with a woman who kept her own name. A woman with her own name, on the other hand, was judged as less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and more competent, which was similar to an unmarried woman living together or a man. Finally, a job applicant who took her partner’s name, in comparison with one with her own name, was less likely to be hired for a job and her monthly salary was estimated €861,21 lower (calculated to a working life, €361.708,20).

Source: “What’s in a Name? 361.708 Euros: The Effects of Marital Name Change” from Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Volume 32, Issue 1 March 2010 , pages 17 – 25 via Bakadesuyo

I’d love to see a similar study on women who freelance: I’m not sure how the numbers would actually play out. After all, most freelancers have already proved that we’re more ambitious just by striking out on our own. There are definitely other factors at play.

The Marketing Cost of a New Name

One of the issues that I’ve been hearing more and more when I talk to freelance writers who work primarily online, interestingly enough, is that not every woman feels like changing her name is even an option now. When you’ve invested years in building profiles on social networking sites, making sure your name can be found in any search engine and telling editors just how to spell your byline, the idea of changing names is downright scary. And what if you fall in love with someone whose last name happens to be Smith? Good luck landing a domain name then!

Women in academia have been dealing with this question for decades: when you’ve published under your maiden name, trying to get recognition under an entirely different name can’t be easy. But I think personal branding and search engines have brought the question to a whole new level. I don’t think I could afford to change my name if push came to shove.

The solution, for some women, has been to change their legal names while continuing to use their maiden names professionally. It’s an option, but not the only one.

A Side Note

I don’t think this is simply a question for women planning to get married. I’ve got plenty of friends of both genders who have changed names — two of my friends both changed their last names when they got married, a (male) cousin of mine changed his last name so that a family name would not die out, and so on.

13 Comments

  1. P.S. Jones   •  

    I told my husband the same thing when I got married, but I have to admit that I was more motivated by the fact that I really like my name. (It’s not like I write under the name anyway.) I feel like Princess Jones has a ring to it and I think that other people do to because they tend to call me by my entire name or PJ to shorten it. And Princess Curtis sounds like I should be doing drag shows three nights a week.

    We ended up compromising and I added his last name without a hyphen. This way I can choose how to be addressed with the person I’m speaking to. While I often get mail to Mrs Curtis, anything work related will have Jones on it and my ID has both names on it. It’s not perfect but it works for me.

  2. Yo Prinzel   •  

    When I got married at the tender, nubile age of 23 there was no question that I wanted to change names. I wanted nothing to do with the person I had been and was so excited to become Mrs. Prinzel. Now, on the cusp of 35, I wish I had remained DeRobertis. It was a clunky name, to be sure, but I feel like I might have done that little girl some justice and it might have been good for her–rather than just stamping out her existence.

  3. thursday   •     Author

    @P.S. It sounds like you definitely found something that works well. And I can definitely see ‘PJ’ working out better than ‘PC’, at least as far as nicknames go.

    @Yo, There’s so much identity that goes into our names that I think that no matter what choice we make, we’ll still be able to argue the other side down the road. I remember telling my parents that I would change my name the day I turned 18 (I was such a snotty teenager), because I didn’t like who they had made me into. I’ve had to do a lot of learning to be comfortable with my own identity.

  4. Isao   •  

    The most memorable (in all ways) story about the name-changing issue is from James Chartland. http://www.copyblogger.com/james-chartrand-underpants/
    As a male I am slowly getting to understand how serious this issue is. When I was married I never asked my wife to change her name -I didn’t care- and she preferred to keep her as it was. Isn’t that going to be the norm in the future?

  5. Trish   •  

    I was entirely moved by Chartrand’s post, too, and I really liked the article you did about gendered names too, Thursday. I’m a member of Broad Universe, a non-profit dedicated to supporting women who write speculative fiction (www.broaduniverse.org), and the name change question comes up a lot. Several fiction writers I know have submitted the same story to the same publication and had it picked up under their male or androgynous pseudonym, even though it was rejected under the female name.

    When I got married 10 years ago, I changed my name. It was still the majority thing to do… and now my brand/reputation is built around Trisha J. Wooldridge, so I couldn’t go back if I wanted – though if I need a pen name, I may use my maiden one.

    I didn’t realize the extent of the associations around women who change their surname, either – so thanks for that info. It’s kind of saddening, to me, anyway, but it’s good to know.

  6. thursday   •     Author

    @Isao, People have been saying that women will start all keeping our maiden names for years now — and it’s still only a tiny percentage of women that actually do that. I think that if it does become the norm, we still have many years to go before it’s common place.

  7. Beatrix   •  

    This is freakishly appropriate for me right now! I’m going to change my name soon, but haven’t settled on a choice yet. I don’t want to wait until I’ve decided on a name to start getting work as a freelancer. But I suspect that for the first year or so I wont have much of a profile to rebuild.

  8. Pingback: In the Sphere: Signatures, Calls, and Surnames « BlueFur.com

  9. thursday   •     Author

    @Trish, The assumptions people make on the basis of a name are definitely depressing, but I’ve come to the conclusion that knowing that information can help us come out ahead. I wasn’t familiar with Broad Universe, but I’ll definitely be checking it out.

    @Beatrix, I don’t think that you should let your decision hold up your efforts to land freelance work. However, I’d say that investing a lot of time in branding yourself should wait until you know the name you want to brand yourself under.

  10. Yo Prinzel   •  

    I hear ya, but maybe keeping your name really helped with that too.

  11. @dfriez   •  

    I made the decision not to change my name when I married, and your post reinforces my choice, so thank you! I have noticed Gen Y women are more likely to change their names, whereas Gen Xers tended to keep their name professionally, at least among my friends.

  12. High Pressure Cleaner   •  

    i always syndicate feeds on my subcribers and of course feedburner is definitely a great help “~,

  13. Pingback: Changing Your Name, Changing Your Career

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