Masculine or Feminine Names: Viewed Differently in Business

It’s no secret that people in business – even those in the same roles – are treated differently than others depending on each individual’s gender. The unique phenomenon has been researched in many studies and highlighted in news stories – such as this interesting article from last year about a man who didn’t realize he was sending emails from his female coworker and saw a drastic switch in responses.

With many business interactions occurring online now, it is increasingly common for individuals of both genders to adjust treatment of someone based on his or her perceived gender. For example, Wild Magnolia Creative’s Operations Manager, Sarah, has a unique nickname – “Bo.” When she first began interacting with clients by sending out invoices, she would sign her name as Bo. Often, she wouldn’t receive a response – just a simple paid invoice or a polite “thank you.” However, she recently decided that she wanted to go by her legal name, “Sarah,” in business. Shockingly, the very first invoice she sent out received a harsh response – with the client stating that he “didn’t appreciate the tone of the email.” The email was an automated invoice reminder that clients frequently receive. The only change? Her name.

It’s unclear why people have such strong reactions to certain names, though it’s noticeable that individuals with feminine, cultural or unusual names will often be treated differently. Another interesting example of this occurred when we recently parted ways with a client that had interactions with multiple members of our team. Much of the data-driven strategies, ad management and overall communication was led by Daelyn and Julia, while Eric and Jonathan did assistant background work. When leaving feedback for each member, the following statements stood out:

Eric was described as an asset to have in the arsenal and effectively managed a high-spend ad campaign.

Jonathan was credited with crafting a social strategy which propelled engagement. On the other hand…

Daelyn “managed a digital to-do list.”

Julia “created shareable graphics.”

Of course, this is not to say that this feedback was left with mal-intent. In fact, the client was perfectly polite, but had simply attributed certain tasks to the males on our team despite having main communication with the females on our team. This outlines a perception that women in business are often required to overcome – regardless of our leadership status, we will frequently have clients who mentally place us in the role of a “secretary.”

What can people do to avoid placing this bias onto clients and colleagues with feminine names? Mostly, it requires the ability to be mindful about what you are going to say before you say it. A good rule of thumb to remember as a male in business approaching a woman in business is that it’s important to treat her as you would any other professional. Clear any preconceived notions – both conscious and subconscious – of feminine or masculine names and view the person based on his or her knowledge and expertise. So, whether you receive an email from a “Catherine” or a “David,” make sure you would respond the same regardless if the names were switched.

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