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What’s in a name?

05/29/2009

I often think back on something that happened in one of my undergraduate physics discussion groups.  It was just a weekly meeting where we would read a new paper or two in physics research and supposedly discuss, but mostly just eat cookies and watch the professors argue as they try to figure out what is actually going on in the paper.

Once, this happened…

Male Professor: “I think what he [the author] means is – “

Female Professor: “I believe the author is a woman.”

Male Professor: “Oh, sorry.”  Later: “But here he says -“

Female Professor: “The author is a WOMAN.”

Male Professor: “Right, right, sorry.”  Later: “Here he writes -“

Female Professor: “Honestly, it is not that hard to use the proper pronoun, PLEASE, the author is a WOMAN!”

It kind of went like this the whole time.  Obviously, it was awesome to see my advisor say something every time the others referred to the author as male, but disheartening that my other professors couldn’t seem to get it right after an hour of discussion.  Unfortunately in our society, we generally have an assumption of maleness (and of whiteness, heterosexuality, etc.) such that the male is considered “neutral” and the female is the other thing, the special condition.  People just naturally say “he” and assume an author is male unless they have prior knowledge that the author is female, but generally no one asks themselves “Hmm, is this author male or female, and therefore what pronoun should I use?”  But this begs a question… do you even want people to know that you’re a woman?

This reminded me of Ben Barres, a biologist who had a sex change at the age of 42, and therefore has actually been on both sides of the gender line in science and can vouch for the fact that women are treated differently.  A WaPo article about his story brought up someone else who illustrates exactly what I’m talking about.

In an interview, Nancy Andreasen, a well-known psychiatrist at the University of Iowa, agreed with Barres. She said it took her a long time to convince her husband that he got more respect when he approached an airline ticket counter than she did. When she stopped sending out research articles under her full name and used the initials N.C. Andreasen instead, she said, the acceptance rate of her publications soared.

I’m torn between just using my initials to establish myself and then BAM throw out the woman thing later, or publishing under my full name, wearing it loud and proud, even though it’s not exactly a name that is bursting with authority.  What have other women done?  What do you plan to do?

And which looks more impressive…?

J.UnpronounceableName

Julia UnpronounceableName

I’m just hoping my last name will be memorable enough.

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