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The Risk of the Wrong User Name: How Non-Gendered Nicknames Can Benefit Women

A feminine username can cause problems online, leading many women to question whether to use more masculine nicknames. Thursday Bram guides you through the many things to take into consideration when choosing a username for personal and professional use.
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Women who have been on the internet long enough know we should avoid gendered nicknames online. That’s true at least on gaming forums and other situations where there are no repercussions for the communities to refrain from acting in a demeaning or threatening manner towards women.

The suggestion that women should take steps to protect their identities, rather than expecting online communities as a whole to treat every member as a human, is blatantly unfair. But it reflects the reality that we have far more control over what identities we use online and on paper than the culture in which we work.

This article presents you with several considerations to take into account as you choose a username that will best represent you.

Choosing Names for All Environments

Usernames in a professional setting are less problematic than out in the rest of the internet, though the situation is by no means perfect. In theory, professional intranets and other systems are subject to the same harassment policies that physical offices are. However, there may be some deeper considerations.

There have been several studies that have clearly demonstrated hiring managers make judgements based on the implied ethnicity of a first name. In a study titled “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?,” researchers were able to demonstrate that identical resumes were received differently when topped by names perceived as African-American. While there haven’t been precisely similar studies done comparing male and female names, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. Consider the case of an engineer with the first name of ‘Kim’—when he clarified his resume to indicate that he was a man, the number of job interviews he received shot up. The situation seems to be particularly harsh in fields such as technology and engineering, where there’s already a sizable difference in the number of men and women working in the industry.

Having a gender-neutral, or even a masculine-sounding name, can have clear benefits for women who need to get past an initial review where our gender may not be obvious. While not everyone is issued a gender-neutral name at birth, adopting a nickname, as well as an online username, can enable access to equal treatment. The question regarding whether or not to use a nickname is particularly worth asking for anyone working in a technical field, where a significant portion of communication is done through email and other systems that don’t necessarily associate an image or a voice with a message.

Choosing a Name for the Long Run

Choosing a unique identifier, especially in a professional setting, has plenty of potential pitfalls. Depending on the organization you work with, there may be an existing naming schema that you have to shoehorn your name into ‘firstname-lastname,’ ‘lastname.firstinitial’ or some other combination of your various initials and names. But for organizations that are larger or have been using the same naming conventions for a while, there are almost always ways to move an exception through the system. If you have a common name, you may not get the organizational version of your name because someone else may have claimed it first.

Most IT departments are aware of this issue and have options in place that don’t result in new hires winding up with the username “Jane.Doe2” or unfortunate truncations of their names. But there are plenty of unique problems women still face. Not all systems are set up to easily allow a woman to change her last name at work if she changes her marital status or if she has a hyphenated last name or two last names. Of course, women aren’t the only ones who face such technological problems when changing names; someone who is transgender faces the same dilemmas when transitioning. But the cultural expectations that women face drive the problem home. You would think that if roughly half the workforce has a decent chance of changing their names at least once in their lives, there would be more mechanisms already in place.

Such situations require choosing what you’re going to use as your name (and the usernames that depend on it) early in your career. While “personal branding” can sound laughable at times, the reality is that employers now make a habit of searching for job applicants on social media; not finding a thing about a prospective employee isn’t as bad as finding something negative, but it may give some hiring managers pause. But as we live more of our lives online, it’s only a matter of time when turning in a resume or job application with a name other than the one you use in day-to-day life will be problematic. Choosing a name you’re comfortable with and sticking with it is the easiest option. That includes a surname, to a certain extent—while a little over sixty percent of women in their twenties change their last name when getting married, many women now continue to use their maiden names professionally. If your professional colleagues know you by one name, asking them to make the switch can prove to be a difficult problem.

Consider the Cost of a Name Change

It’s worth noting that there’s a financial incentive to keep one’s maiden name. A 2011 study demonstrated that women who have taken their partners’ surnames were offered salaries lower than women who kept their last names, to the tune of 860 euros (1160 dollars) per month. While these results came from a relatively small study (50 Dutch students) where culture might play a role, they’re still striking.

Those numbers were based on a professional who had already established herself under a new name, by the way. They didn’t take into account the intangible cost of going to all of her contacts and telling them that she had a new name or the work that might have gone into changing her name on her diplomas or on legal documents.

There is a similar opportunity cost that goes along with any name change, even those that aren’t as emotionally charged as a marriage beginning or ending. Establishing a respected username in an online forum requires serious work. Consider a site like GitHub, where visitors to a profile page can see at a glance the level of work a programmer does. Considering the sheer number of technical recruiters who trawl GitHub, looking for prospects worth hiring, a well-established profile is valuable. An employer isn’t going to be interested in hiring a programmer on the strength of a GitHub profile established only last week.

Findability can also be a concern. With each name change, connections are lost. People search for the names they remember. If a user profile disappears or the old name doesn’t bring up any information, most people won’t keep searching. Picking a username you’re comfortable with, like choosing a professional name, is best done early. It’s rare that anyone should stick with the online usernames they relied on in high school—being able to disassociate yourself from youthful shenanigans certainly has its benefits—but by the time a person graduates from college, having a consistent identity is crucial.

That requires sinking some thought into what an appropriate name (nick, user or otherwise) may be. Every recruiter has a horror story about unprofessional email addresses, like 2cute4u@freeemail.com. That sort of identity choice can haunt a user for years, and it’s always surprising how many different variations there are on that theme. Finding the right ‘2cute4u’ may be harder than you’d guess. It can take some trial and error to find a username that expresses individuality, while still making it clear who the identity belongs to.

My Own Username

I’m religious about getting the same username on every platform I use, whenever possible. My username or profile on most websites is exactly the same and has been since before I started college, which has the added benefit of making it clear I’m the same person across different websites. But while I didn’t choose my username with anonymity in mind (it’s my first name and the initial of my surname—ThursdayB—and I actively associate it with my full name), it has turned out to be very ambiguous.

In a way, I’m lucky. Very few people have a built-in assumption about the gender of a person named ‘Thursday. My preferred username is even a little more ambiguous. Because usernames don’t necessarily have to match a legal name, people seeing my username for the first time may assume that I chose it out of thin air. They don’t make a connection between my username and my gender. In fact, I routinely get emails and other online messages addressed to ‘Mr. Bram,’ even through sites where I’ve posted a photo of myself on my profile!

Such ambiguity is often beneficial. I will usually correct someone who contacts me directly, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to do so broadly. While I’ve had to deal with the negativity that comes from writing about technology as a woman, I know other women who have had it far worse. I can’t say for sure that having a name that isn’t clearly connected to one gender or another is one of the reasons that I don’t receive the full range of nastiness that other women receive, but it’s one of the biggest differences I’ve noticed. Similarly, I’ve heard from other bloggers who have used pseudonyms that made their genders ambiguous that they received practically none of the negative attention openly female bloggers often suffer.

Personally, I’m comfortable letting people make assumptions about my gender. I get a little irritated when someone refers to me as ‘he’ on the same page as my photo, but I’d rather focus on dealing with bigger issues. But it has taken me some time to come to that conclusion. I used to get pretty worked up about such situations, to the point of firing off some angry emails. That’s because my identity (which does include my gender) is important to me. I want to be able to do the work I love and be the person I am at the same time, despite the reality that some people think because I’m a woman I couldn’t possibly understand technical topics. (And that’s the nice paraphrase of a comment I’ve gotten fairly regularly.)

Some Tips for Choosing Your Username

There aren’t any hard and fast rules for choosing a nickname. But there are some easy options that probably won’t require jumping through hoops to use:

  • Using initials, such as those for your first and last name: The classic example is J.K. Rowling.
  • Using an ambiguous shortened version of your name: Variations on Chris constantly pop up, to the point that I’ve had to ask for a specific gender when I’m writing about a person going by Chris.
  • Using a variation on your last name: Especially if you’ve got a complicated last name, such as a hyphenated surname, your last name may provide some options.
  • Choosing a personal characteristic to use as a nickname might be worth considering if you’re in a position where convincing an IT support specialist to use your nickname isn’t a problem: ‘Red,’ for instance, used to be a very common nickname for gingers.

Understanding the Complications of Gender

While I’ve taken a broad brush to discussing gender—in using the binary terms of ‘men’ and ‘women’—I’ve done so at the risk of oversimplifying the situation. Neither gender nor identity is a simple matter. The problems I’ve discussed above are magnified for transgendered people.

For someone who is transitioning, as well as attempting to change his or her name, there can be large legal and medical obstacles. Of course, such a change also requires the same process of letting contacts know about a new identity, but with the added discomfort of discussing what may be an intensely difficult and personal situation. Furthermore, being identified as the wrong gender can be frustrating, embarrassing, and hurtful in such situations.

Other questions of identity are just becoming prominent now. As same-sex marriage becomes increasingly common, the question of name changes tied to changes in relationship status will be less tied to gender. As we think about how identity works both online and off, we can’t make assumptions about gender.

A Nickname isn’t Enough, but it’s a Start

Gender-neutral names are by no means a panacea. In fact, in the long-term, adopting nicknames just to get ahead professionally—or to avoid threats and insults when playing video games—may be more harmful than helpful. Being told that we can’t be ourselves and that we need to change something as fundamentally personal as our names is certainly not empowering and could be psychologically damaging.

But it’s a fight that every woman has to decide whether to take on for herself. Struggling to get ahead professionally when you have the same credentials as someone else who moves ahead much more quickly may be just as damaging. Adopting a different name may be a shortcut worth considering for some women.

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