The Name Change Dilemma

The Wall Street Journal

More women are taking their new husbands' names after marriage, research shows. But the decision continues to spark debate and confusion.

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The trend toward women keeping their maiden names after marriage peaked in the 1990s, when about 23% of women did so, then eased gradually to about 18% in the 2000s, says a 35-year-study published in 2009 in the journal Social Behavior and Personality. And increasingly, studies show women's decisions on the issue are guided by factors other than political or religious ideas about women's rights or marital roles, as often believed.

Well-educated women in high-earning occupations are significantly more likely to keep their maiden names, the study shows. Brides in professional fields such as medicine, the arts or entertainment are the most likely of all to do so. Age makes a big difference too, according to a 2010 study in a scholarly journal entitled "Names: A Journal of Onomastics." Women who married when they were 35 to 39 years old were 6.4 times more likely to keep their names than women who married between the ages of 20 and 24.

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In fact, the idea that women who keep their maiden names are better breadwinners is becoming a stereotype that some people use as a basis for judging women's ability. In a Dutch study published last year in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, researchers had 90 students compare hypothetical women they had met at a party based on whether they took their husband's names. Those who did were judged as more caring, dependent and emotional, while those who kept their names were seen as smarter and more ambitious.

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Researchers also asked 50 students to screen e-mails containing hypothetical job applications from women. The candidates who had kept their maiden names were more likely to be hired and were offered salaries averaging 40% higher than their name-changing peers. (Among limitations of the study, the sample was made up of students who probably lacked much job experience or other criteria upon which to base their judgments.)

Either way, picking a last name can be fraught with complications. Some women lie awake nights before their weddings trying to decide what to do. For women who change their minds later, some vendors even offer "name change kits." Still, changing your name mid-career, as some of my colleagues have done, can lead to confusion among co-workers, clients or in my profession, readers and sources.

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Splitting the difference by keeping both names, as many women do, "is a recipe for confusion," one woman writes in an email. She kept her maiden name professionally but uses her married name sometimes outside work. Now, "I never know how to introduce myself," she says. Her driver's license bears one name and her voter registration the other, and she receives summonses for jury duty in both names.

My Juggle colleague Rachel also uses two different names -- her maiden name professionally and her married name personally and officially -- which can lead to lots of mixups, she says. "Readers and colleagues know me by one name and the HR department, friends and the IRS know me by another," she tells me. "I didn't want to give up my byline, which I've had for many years. But changing my name was important to my husband for a lot of reasons, and ultimately we wanted our family members to all have the same name."

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Readers, how have you handled this decision in your marriage? What kind of reactions to your decision have you received from other people? Has keeping your maiden name or changing your name been a hassle for you? Have any of you changed your names mid-career?

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