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Calling men by their surnames may exacerbate gender inequality, researchers find

It makes us perceive them as more important

Olivia Petter
Friday 06 July 2018 18:05 BST

People are twice as likely to call male professionals by their surname than women, a new study suggests, presenting this as an example of gender bias which may be contributing towards gender inequality.

The team of psychologists at Cornell University found that people are also more likely to refer to fictional male figures by their last name only.

After conducting a series of studies, the researchers concluded that professional men who are referred to by surname only are generally perceived as more famous and important than professional women, who are more frequently referred to by their first and last names.

Common examples of prolific male figures through history who are typically referred to by their last name only include Shakespeare, Darwin and Einstein.

Meanwhile, leading female figures from history such as Marie Curie, Maya Angelou and Emily Dickinson are seldom ever referenced in this way.

"This sort of judgment could result in more recognition, awards, funding and other career benefits, and suggests that a subtle difference in the way we talk about women and men might lead to bias," explain the study’s authors.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lead author and graduate student Stav Atir explained she first noticed the trend in class, where her peers often referred to male scientists by just their surnames, which made them seem more noteworthy.

This team gathered their findings by analysing archival data on forums such as Rate My Professor, where students are encouraged to leave reviews for their university teachers.

After examining almost 4,500 comments on the site, they found that students were 56 per cent more likely to refer to male professors by their surname only.

These people were also deemed as 14 per cent more worthy of receiving an award for their professional work, which suggests that referring to people by just their last name subconsciously infers prestige.

This gender bias undercut each of the other seven studies the psychologists conducted, which analysed the way male and female professionals are referred to across science, literature and politics.

The findings could be particularly relevant when it comes to forming political campaigns, explains co-author Melissa Ferguson, professor and chair of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

"It's possible that referring to a candidate by their full name instead of just the surname could have implications for fame and eminence,” she said.

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