The Power of a Name: Navigating the Personal and Professional Impacts of Changing Surnames

Featured & Cover The Power of a Name Navigating the Personal and Professional Impacts of Changing Surnames

What’s in a name?

In the early stages, a name is just a wobbly scribble on the front of a schoolbook or called out during attendance. As life progresses, it appears at the top of a CV, on a driver’s license, and, if fortunate, on the deed to a home. However, some individuals might change their name without fully understanding the impact of this decision, which can be significant.

In the U.S., a Pew Research study from last year shows that 80% of married women in opposite-sex relationships adopt their husband’s surname. This trend has remained relatively stable over the past few decades. However, younger generations (those aged 18 to 49) are twice as likely as those aged 50 and above to keep their original surname. Despite this, 73% of women under 50 still choose to take their partner’s surname.

The decision to change one’s name is deeply personal and often influenced by professional considerations, according to Michael Bradicich, the owner of, a service that has assisted over 400,000 brides with the name-change process. While some people make this decision impulsively, those who have built a career around their name tend to think twice. After all, “their name is part of their career.”

Unexpected Consequences

Changing a name, or maintaining separate professional and legal names, can lead to unforeseen complications. For instance, women in academia may find it challenging to consolidate their work under both their maiden and married names, risking the loss of critical funding, opportunities, or promotions. Professionals with certifications or licenses under a previous name must ensure prompt paperwork updates to continue practicing. Additionally, those with a significant digital footprint may lose an aspect of their personal brand.

On the other hand, changing a surname can have benefits, such as bypassing biases in recruiting or application systems related to race, age, and gender, or adding a layer of privacy to one’s personal life. For some, a name change can symbolize a fresh start, whether for personal reasons or a career shift, and help build rapport with colleagues and customers. Ultimately, the most important reason to change a name is personal happiness.

Experts emphasize that there is no right or wrong choice regarding name changes, but an informed decision is always preferable.

A Common Phenomenon

Bala Chaudhary, a faculty member in Dartmouth University’s Environmental Studies department, had not given much thought to her name professionally until she overheard a male peer complaining about a scientist changing her surname after marriage. This peer’s complaint about her mentor’s papers appearing under both a married and maiden name highlighted the triviality of this issue compared to other challenges women in science face. Chaudhary’s experience reflects the pressure not to change one’s surname, aligning with Pew Research findings that women with higher academic qualifications are less likely to change their names after marriage. For example, 83% of women with a college degree or less change their names, compared to 79% with a bachelor’s degree and 68% with a postgraduate degree.

Considering Family

A surname change often signals a shift in an individual’s private life, prompting assumptions about their intentions, such as starting a family. Data supports this to some extent: a 2023 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 53% of births between 2015 and 2019 were to married women, with an additional 25% to women in cohabiting situations. Moreover, 20% of married women have a second child within 24 months of their first. However, not all married women who change their surnames have children; some prefer a DINK (double income, no kids) lifestyle or are childless by choice. Nevertheless, outsiders might still make assumptions about a woman’s career trajectory based on her marital status.

This issue is evident in real-world scenarios. Chaudhary noted that many respected female scientists avoid discussing their personal lives to prevent professional bias. This reflects the broader concern that women must consider how sharing personal details might impact their careers.

Career Depth’s Bradicich observed that the depth of one’s career affects how challenging a name change can be. His company, launched in 2006, has helped over 400,000 women navigate the name change process, revealing distinct patterns. For younger individuals, changing a name primarily involves updating government forms. However, for professionals, the process is more complex, involving payroll, company emails, professional certifications, and licensing.

The impact of a name change varies with career experience. Individuals deeply entrenched in their professional identities tend to be more aware of the implications. However, many still encounter unexpected challenges, particularly when traveling, as mismatched travel documents can create significant hassles.

Digital Detox

A name change can also serve as a digital reset, adding privacy in an online world, according to Jamie White, an Ireland-based life coach and business mentor. In a digital age where everything is tracked, changing one’s name can offer a fresh start. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals seeking more anonymity online, such as teachers trying to keep their social media profiles hidden from students.

Moreover, a name change can help bypass biases inherent in education and hiring systems. A 2023 study from the University of Michigan found that students with surnames in the latter half of the alphabet received lower grades when graded alphabetically. Similarly, a study from King’s College London revealed that applicants with English names received more positive responses for leadership roles than those with non-English names.

While changing one’s name to circumvent such biases reflects poorly on current hiring practices, it can also be a strategic decision. White noted that differentiating between legal and professional names can help individuals build new professional identities.

Authenticity and Choice

Ultimately, the most important factor in deciding whether to change one’s name is personal desire. Being open about the decision can mitigate confusion in a corporate setting. A simple social media post or an email reminder can help colleagues adjust to the change.

White emphasized that authenticity is key in professional relationships. “People work with people, they don’t want these professional facades and performances. They find them inhuman, unrelatable, and difficult to connect with. They say that nothing resonates at a higher frequency than authenticity.”

“There’s no right or wrong answer,” Bradicich echoed. “It’s a very personal decision but one which you should discuss with your family, partner, or friends.”

Chaudhary added that the conversation around name changes is evolving, a necessary shift long overdue. She highlighted the importance of flexibility and open dialogue among women in science, both in formal and informal settings.

“The ultimate feminist decision is to have complete choice and to be able to change the decision any time you want,” she said. “The message when I was a student was: ‘Decide now and lock it in.’ There should be flexibility.”

“The conversations among women in science are happening,” she added. “The next step … is getting integration into mentorship training. It’s really getting it out into labs, getting it out into faculty meetings, the search committee meetings.”

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