I just read "Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students," from a recent edition of PNAS. They make a decent case for their conclusion that science faculty are biased against women (despite the title, the conclusion is not pro male, but anti female).
They sent a supposed application to ~160 faculty (at 6 institutions). Half of the faculty were men, half women. Half of the purported applicants had "female" names, half had "male" names. The faculty (both male and female) perceived he female applicant more likeable, but less competent and less hireable. They offered her a significantly smaller salary, and less mentoring. Sounds pretty bleak and biased.
I see a flaw, however. Before I'd gotten even halfway through, I was asking myself "Which names did they choose?" What about gender-neutral names, like Lee? What about perceived nationality or regional differences? What if they called the girl Jennifer?
I like names, and it amuses me to play around with the NameVoyager site, watching the rise and fall of trendy names. I have three Aunts named Barbara, and my husband has another. I have met one woman named Barbara who was born after 1975, and that was while I was living in Germany. My mother has an "old lady name." She has met few women who share her name, and all them have been at least 20 years her senior. And then there are the names that trickle down from the pretentious to the great unwashed. "Freakanomics" (or was it its "Super" successor?) has a great chapter on baby names, perceptions, and the economic status of the name-givers. NameVoyager has a list of poll questions for each name, to gauge (and then report on) perceptions of names. Do they sound smart? Do they sound attractive? Is the name associated with someone famous? Famously unsavory? Based on the kinds of responses there, I doubt there are many Americans naming their daughters Bertha today.
So I thought about all of these name-y things as I read the paper. What names did they choose? The authors insist that the only differed between the applications was the gender of the name, but what about the perception of that name?
Well, they chose John and Jennifer. Yes, Jennifer. I feared as much. The authors say they chose names of similar likeability. I don't think they are names of similar seriousness. Now I know a fair number of Johns and Jennifers, and I certainly won't say they have been the same in abilities, personalities or looks. Still, if you were to ask me for adjectives describing a John, I'd say ordinary, reliable, solid. For Jennifer, I'd say bubbly, cheerful, friendly.
Do those descriptions look gender biased? Certainly. I'd say they match up pretty well with the "subtle bias" the authors are talking about. But does that mean that I would prefer a man over a woman? No. It means I might prefer a John over a Jennifer.
What names might I find more even? How about Jacob and Bridget? Paul and Ann? I'm keeping along the traditional English line that the authors' picks conform to. Why not Mohammed and Saria? Jose and Magda? Horace and Gertrude? Deshawn and Dominique?
They used just one name per gender and then said the perceptions of those two names could represent the perceptions of their respective halves of the population. I find that suspect.
Don't get me wrong: they're still probably right, and it's probably not a good sign that John and Jennifer create such different expectations.