There are more variables at play than just pronunciation, though. In competitive fields that have classically been dominated by men, such as law and engineering, women with sexually ambiguous names tend to be more successful. This effect is known as the Portia Hypothesis (named for the heroine of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice who disguises herself as a lawyer’s apprentice and takes on the name Balthazar to save the titular merchant, Antonio). A study found that female lawyers with more masculine names—such as Barney, Dale, Leslie, Jan, and Rudell—tend to have better chances of winning judgeships than their more effeminately named female peers. All else being equal, changing a candidate’s name from Sue to Cameron tripled a candidate’s likelihood of becoming a judge; a change from Sue to Bruce quintupled it.
Names work hard: They can affect who gets into elite schools, what jobs we apply for, and who gets hired. Our names can even influence what cities we live in, who we befriend, and what products we buy since, we’re attracted to things and places that share similarities to our names.
A name is, after all, perhaps the most important identifier of a person. Most decisions are made in about three to four seconds of meeting someone, and this “thin-slicing” is surprisingly accurate. Something as packed full of clues as a name tends to lead to all sorts of assumptions and expectations about a person, often before any face-to-face interaction has taken place. A first name can imply race, age, socioeconomic status, and sometimes religion, so it’s an easy—or lazy—way to judge someone’s background, character, and intelligence.
These judgments can start as early as primary school. Teachers tend to hold lower expectations for students with typically black-sounding names while they set high expectations for students with typically white- and Asian-sounding names. And this early assessment of students’ abilities could influence students’ expectations for themselves.
On this year’s French baccalaureate, an exam that determines university placement for high school students, test-takers named Thomas (for boys) and Marie (for girls) tended to score highest. These are, you will note, typically white, French, middle- or upper-class names. One could imagine these students were given the advantage of high expectations and self-perception, whether or not they had the money and support that comes with the socioeconomic background associated with those names.
People change their names for different reasons. Angelina Voight became Jolie to estrange herself from her father and Natalie Hershlag became Portman to maintain her family’s privacy. The inclusion of a middle initial in formal correspondence is a strong identifier of intelligence (even though the New York Times claims it’s a dying trend). But what if parents from disadvantaged circumstances gave their children “advantaged” names? Could just a name really have that great of an effect on a person’s career and future?