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Male scientists are far more likely to be referred to by their last names, impacting status and awards

Darwin, Newton, Einstein. When scientists reach a certain level of fame, first names need not apply. That’s especially true if the scientist is a man, according to a new study. And it doesn’t just go for scientists: Politicians, athletes, and other high-profile figures are more likely to be referred to by their last names alone if they’re a man.

Researchers uncovered the gender disparity in a series of studies, the first of which looked at how students refer to professors in online reviews. The team inspected 4494 reviews by students taking biology, psychology, computer science, history, and economics courses at 14 U.S. universities. Overall, male professors were 56% more likely to be referred to by their last names alone than female professors, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The largest gender disparity was in computer science, where surname mentions prevailed in 48% of reviews for male professors and 18% of reviews for female professors.

In three other studies, the researchers confirmed that men were far more likely to garner last-name-only recognition in other contexts as well. In one, pundits were 126% more likely to use a surname when talking about male, as opposed to female, politicians on talk shows. In another, study participants were 74% more likely to use a surname when talking about famous men—such as Joe Biden and Carl Sagan—than when talking about famous women—such as Jane Austen and Marie Curie.

How often professors are called only by surnames

By students commenting on Rate My Professor, a ratings website.

(Graphic) J. Brainard and J. You/Science; (Data) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

And that kind of naming seems to affect the way outsiders think about a person. Additional experiments carried out by the same research team found that last-name-only references were viewed as being more famous and eminent. In one experiment, fictional scientists referred to by their surname, rather than their full name, were judged as 14% more deserving of a career award. This means women could be short-changed on accolades based on nothing more than how people utter their names.