Name blame

Isabella: probably not her nameIsabella: probably not her nameThe Poorhouse is never one to be over-quick on the uptake, whether this be in reality or in the strange webworld your brain is currently hooked into. To prove the point, then here is a story from a month ago designed to commemorate an event not so different in duration ago - namely the blissful birth of faux-niece baby Susie. For the 99.9% of readers for whom the shout-out means nothing, read on anyway. What do you have to lose?

Everyone knows the best thing about having a baby is you get to choose its name. For sure they can go on to legally change it, but you have at least a few years to laugh hysterically about how your baby's initials spell out a rude word, or that their name is Cockney slang for a toilet and so on. Even those parents who aren't out to give their kids hell need to be a spot careful though in name-selection according to research from Professor Figlio. Especially if you have a career in mind for your darling offspring.

Figlio decided to investigate the naming of the fairer sex (which means women, for those people born in the past 50 years or so). He first set about charting the "femininity" of 1700 letter and sound combinations. Breaking traditional female names down into this part allowed him to assign a "femininity score" to names taken from 1,400,000-odd birth certificates.

Here’s some select results, with a higher femininity score indicating the name is more feminine:

Name Femininity
Isabella 1.21
Anna 1.04
Elizabeth 1.02
Emma 0.97
Jessica 0.93
Samantha 0.83
Sarah 0.78
Olivia 0.74
Hannah 0.70
Emily 0.68
Lauren 0.66
Ashley 0.63
Grace 0.50
Abigail 0.48
Alex 0.28

So far so good...but is there any point to this? Well, according to the paper which will be published in the Journal of Human resources, yes there is, at least educationally speaking. It turns out that girls with highly feminine names are less likely to choose (or be cajoled into) studying traditionally masculine-associated subjects at score. In fact a study of 1,000 sisters who happened to be called the rather ambiguous Alex and the highly feminine Isabella showed that Alexes were twice as likely to study maths or science at a higher-than-mandatory level than Isabellas.

It is therefore alleged that "The effect is so strong that parents can set twin daughters off on completely different career paths simply by calling them Isabella and Alex".

But why would this be? There are of course any number of possible explanations, but according to the report's author:

on average, people treat Isabellas differently to Alexes...Girls with feminine names were often typecast...It is a stereotype, and girls with particularly feminine names may feel more pressure to avoid technical subjects...

But it should be noted Isabellas and their ilk aren't avoiding maths because they are bad at it necessarily, there was no difference in achievement between the girls that actually did go on to study such subjects.

Femininity isn't the only factor at issue here. Take what, in a bizaare twist of likelihood, the Daily Mail refers to as 'low-status' and the Observer calls 'chav' names. We're talking about naming kids after Heat-loved celebs such as big-breasted Jordan or any weird invented or deliberately misspelled name. Sure, Sky from Neighbours seems to do OK on the intellectual front, but Figlio's analysis of 55,000 little kids showed that those with 'low-status' or otherwise weird names actually did slightly worse in exams as their more sanely named siblings - one theory being that teachers come predisposed with lower expectations for kids called "Boomerangojuice" than those called "Edward" for instance.

Let's let Figaro sum up then:

...children with different names but the exact same upbringing grow up to have remarkably different life outcomes...If you want to give your child a name that connotes low status, then you need to be aware of the consequences.


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