Close-up of a groom placing a ring on his bride's finger
January 4, 2017

Study discovers what people think about women who keep their name in marriage

A recently published study has been released in the journal Sex Roles, looking at how women who retain their surname through marriage are seen in the United States.

It considers the opinion of more than 900 female undergraduates and just under 300 male undergrads on the topic, revealing that those women who chose to keep their surnames are perceived to be less committed to marriage.

Discovering People's Perception of Gender Roles

In an interview with PsyPost, Rachael Robnett of the University of Nevada, author of the study, explained her interests and motivations for pursuing the topic:

”As a developmental psychologist, I have always had an interest in people’s adherence to gender roles across the lifespan," Robnett said.

"In high school, why do adolescent girls often wait for adolescent boys to ask them to Prom or Homecoming? Why do heterosexual men nearly always initiate marriage proposals?

”Although gender roles have become more flexible in many facets of life, they have been somewhat slower to change in heterosexual romantic relationships. This is perhaps most evident when it comes to traditions related to heterosexual marriage.”

Robnett went on to point out that even though women often out-earn their male partners, they will still predominantly change their name. She also noted that prior research had shown how stereotyping promoted a commitment to gender roles.

The study, she says, wanted to build on the anecdotal information she and her colleagues had picked up regarding negative connotations when women keep their name, and to shed light on it with empirical evidence.

wedding staircase

Women are rated as showing less commitment to the marriage when they don't take their husband's name. Why does this happen?

The crux of the study was to see whether people held stereotypes of women who keep their surnames after marriage.

To do this, college students were split into two groups and both were presented with two essentially identical, brief narratives regarding a couple due to be married. The only difference being in one story, the woman (Christina) kept her surname and in the other, she didn’t. The students were then asked to rate the commitment of Christina to the marriage.

Robnett’s findings were fascinating. She explained that:

“First, participants who were told that Christina retained her own last name rated her as lower in marriage commitment; participants who were told that Christina adopted David’s last name rated her as higher in marriage commitment. Put differently, perceptions of Christina’s commitment to a successful marriage were influenced by her marital surname choice.”

The link between power and conservatism

Robnett added the further take point that there was a good degree of variation within the stereotypes. In order to further analyze this, the team undertook two follow-up studies which looked at a personality trait known as social dominance orientation.

The follow-up found that those who are high in this trait, often wealthy and powerful straight white men, reacted particularly poorly to those who are seen to defy social norms.

In other words, those high in social dominance were most likely to react particularly negatively towards Christina’s decision to keep her own name after marriage.

Robnett added: “This effect held even after controlling for variables such as gender, ethnicity, and religiosity, which underscores the strong explanatory power of social dominance orientation. These findings suggest that, for some individuals, gender, power, and the marital surname tradition are closely linked.”

The researcher was quick to point out the limitations of the findings, stating that they were missing the external validity of considering the story when participants have a widespread knowledge of the couple, such as with friends or relatives – something she would consider as the next stage of the study.

She finished by stating: “In conducting this research, my goal is to encourage people to actively consider gender-role traditions that receive relatively little attention due to being so commonplace. If this research can spark conversations between friends, family, or romantic partners, that goal has been accomplished.”

The research piece, entitled: “She Might be Afraid of Commitment: Perceptions of Women Who Retain Their Surname After Marriage” was also co-authored by Paul Nelson and Kristin Anderson


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