The casual sexism of a mononym


Damn the men and their…

(spins the wheel)

…habit of calling other men by their surname only.

Gender gap discourse tends to center around unequal wages and limited upward mobility in the workplace for women. While these systemic disadvantages are likely the most consequential, they fail to highlight some of the odder — and less obvious — obstacles that successful females face. Take, for example, name recognition. A recent study demonstrates how people seem to be more inclined to refer to prominent men by their last names — often a sign of success or power — compared to women of equal significance.

Researchers at Cornell recently conducted eight related studies to determine how naming conventions affected the public perception of a prominent professional. More specifically, the researchers sought to understand the effects of being referred to by one’s surname and nothing else.

As hypothesized, mononyms conferred clear advantages — they made successful individuals seem both more famous and more important in the public eye. Males, unsurprisingly, were more than twice as likely as females to be called by only their last name, one of these studies found.

Another study showed that participants thought surname-only scientists were 14 percent more deserving of a National Science Foundation career award. A similar bias showed among participants when discussing fictional scientists: they were more likely to mention the male by only his surname.

I can’t talk about the world of science, but this practice is not as clear cut in politics – from Thatcher on the right to Ocasio-Cortez on the left, female politicians, like their male counterparts, are generally referred to by their surname (including May and Merkel at the moment). There are exceptions, of course; most notably where a male relative of a female politico has likewise been in politics and they need to be distinguished so as not to confuse people, e.g. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Zulfikar and Benazir Bhutto and so on. Does that mean there is less sexism in politics? Many would disagree, yet here we are with all these female political mononyms.

I don’t know if a person referred to by surname alone seems more famous and more important, but at least to me calling someone by their surname seems quite harsh and aggressive or at least officious, reminiscent of a school roll-call or the army life. Sometimes it can even seem rude and disrespectful, suggesting undeserved familiarity. First name, by contrast, softens everything (except when it’s Adolf). If you don’t like what I write and want to call me a moron, you are much more likely to say “you’re a moron, Chrenkoff” than “you’re a moron, Arthur Chrenkoff” or “you’re a moron, Arthur”. See what I mean?

If I’m not alone in this perception, there is another reason why people might refer to women by both first name and surname and it has nothing to do with a sexist judgment about their lesser ability or prominence and more with simply being polite. Which another feminist-inspired study will no doubt soon equate with condescension.