Does Taking Your Husband's Name (or Not) Affect How Much Money You Make?

BlogHer Original Post

Nine years ago this fall, I went to the closest Social Security office when we returned from our honeymoon and changed my last name to match my husband's. It wasn't an easy decision, and we went through a plethora of choices: keep our own names, combine them into one general family name, hyphenate my own while his remains a single last name. But ultimately, I decided (my husband didn't have feelings either way) to change my name despite my discomfort with having publications under my maiden name. According to recent articles this week in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail, I made the wrong decision.

Group of business executives sitting together at a conference

The Globe and Mail quotes a study conducted by social psychologists that found: "Women who take their partner’s name are regarded as more caring but less intelligent, less competent and less ambitious ... Moreover, they’re less likely to be hired for a job and are perceived to earn much less at work than those who keep their own name."

In other words, they may be penalized in the job market. It's not just a fact that women earn 77 cents to every man's dollar, but now there is also a discrepancy between the amount women are paid who keep their maiden name vs. share the name of their spouse.

Some of this discrepancy in pay can be explained with circumstances. In the Netherlands, "there were demographic differences between women who chose to take their partners’ names and those who did not. Marital name-changers were generally older and less educated, for example." But the study also examined what participants, acting as "potential employers" would be willing to pay similarly described hypothetical job applicants, and women who changed their names were awarded less pay overall.

The New York Times points out that the research has “some major limitations” beyond culture differences:

For one, the sample size of respondents in the experiments was relatively small. Perhaps more important, the participants were students, not actual employers, who might behave differently.

In addition, blogger Tara Clark gives her thoughts on the Globe and Mail article, pointing out problems with the way the material was presented.

Aha! She has spent the first half of the article using statements that imply that causation was determined by the study. And now she makes a reasonable statement indicating that that was false?

Moreover, the most recent study took place in the Netherlands at Tilburg University, the newspaper reports that these findings are in line with similar studies conducted in the United States – though the article did not state when or by whom these studies were conducted. With cultural differences on the institution of marriage existing in the two countries, it's difficult to know how much the information discovered in this study can translate for an American audience.

Yet the Globe and Mail additionally quotes a study held in Canada that followed how many women changed their name during marriage, though the main impetus in Canada seemed to be women changing their names after childbirth in order to have everyone in the family share one last name.

And that was a big reason for why I changed my name, and I came at it from the point-of-view of a teacher who had seen all the permutations of last names over the years. I realized upon reading this article that just as the participants in the study had inferred certain things about women who changed their last names to match their husband's, as a teacher, I inferred certain things about families who didn't share a last name, even though I had friends who utilized all possibilities across the last name spectrum.

The hidden beliefs definitely flow in multiple directions.

More interesting than the newspaper articles themselves were the responses across the Internet including one on Politics Daily asks, "Does our identity change along with our name? With the stroke of a pen, do we, along with the surname of our new husbands, suddenly take on a new persona? Some people think so." Author Joann Weiner brings in a dissection of names in general, the importance all aspects of a person's name plays in how they are perceived and doesn't rely on the information provided in the study. She examines the names of women she knows -- those who took their husband's last name and those who did not -- and offers how she perceives each of them.

Though perhaps it is the Harvard Business Review that puts the whole study into perspective by saying, "This study did make me think about how the very personal choices we make (or are made for us) still so heavily influence our professional potential."

How did you decide whether or not to change your last name with marriage?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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