The Impact of Changing Your Name as a Married Woman [Careers, Work, Relationships, and jobs]

The Impact of Changing Your Name as a Married Woman [Careers, Work, Relationships, and jobs]

As a (married) woman, changing your name after marriage is a deeply personal decision—but can impact your career for better or worse.

 

What’s in a name?

In the beginning, it’s a wobbly scribble on the front of a schoolbook, or called out in attendance. Later in life it’s displayed at the top of a CV, stamped on a driver’s license and—if you’re lucky—signed on the deed to a home.

But some people might change that moniker without a full appreciation of the impact the decision could have—for better or worse.

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In the U.S., 80% of married women in opposite-sex relationships take their husband’s surname, according to a study from Pew Research published last year. It’s a trend that has showed little signs of fluctuating over the past couple of decades, though younger generations—those between ages 18 and 49—were twice as likely as those age 50-plus to keep their original surname.

That being said, 73% of women under the age of 50 chose to take on their partner’s surname.

And for each who does, the decision is deeply personal—and often complicated by professional considerations—says Michael Bradicich, the owner of MissNowMrs.com, a service that has helped over 400,000 brides through the name change process. While some people “jump in with both feet” and little consideration, Bradicich told Fortune, those who trade on their name often take a pause.

After all, “their name is part of their career.”

 

Unexpected consequences

Those who have decided to change their name—or perhaps separate their “professional” and legal names—may come up against snags they never saw coming, experts told Fortune Media.

 

For example, women in academics struggle to collate their work between their maiden and married names—and they risk losing critical funding, opportunities, or promotion as a result. Likewise, professionals who have gained certifications or licenses under a previous name must ensure paperwork is carried out swiftly in order to keep practicing, while those with a valuable digital footprint may lose an element of their personal brand.

There’s also reputation and (hopefully) goodwill attached to the name that appears on one’s LinkedIn page or email byline—recognition that could take time to rebuild.

 

However, there’s also a raft of upsides to a surname change. It could mean outmaneuvering bias built into recruiting or application systems when it comes to race, age, and gender, or adding a layer of privacy to your personal life.

For some looking to start afresh—be it for personal reasons or a move in career path—a name change can also act as a digital reset. On top of that, it also provides an opportunity to build rapport with colleagues and customers.

And, of course, there’s the most important reason: A person wants to change their name simply because it makes them happier.

 

The experts Fortune spoke to made one thing absolutely clear: There is no right or wrong choice. An informed decision, however, is preferable.

 

The most common phenomenon

Bala Chaudhary had never given much thought to her name in a professional sense—other than when she could add “Dr.” to the front of it—until she heard a male peer complaining about a fellow scientist changing their surname after marriage.

 

Chaudhary, who works in Dartmouth University’s environmental studies department, was at the time mentored by a female scientist whom she describes as a “giant in the field.” While visiting an outside research lab, Chaudhary encountered a male colleague complaining that her mentor’s papers appeared under both a married and maiden name, making it less convenient to source the work.

“It was surprising to hear such a well-respected, brilliant scientist talked about negatively because of her name. And because of a change in her name that is so common—the most common phenomenon—it was like: ‘Of all the things that women in science have to deal with? This seems like the most trivial,’” Chaudhary told Fortune.

 

Chaudhary’s experience—that there’s “a lot of pressure” to not change your surname—tracks with the findings from Pew Research, which found the more academically experienced a woman is, the less likely she tended to be to change her name. Some 83% of women who have a college degree or less changed their names after marriage, compared to 79% of those with a bachelor’s degree. And at the postgraduate-degree level, this falls further to 68%.

 

‘Thinking about kids?’

A surname change also advertises a shift in an individual’s private life that could prompt a series of assumptions. Chaudhary highlighted this might be a conversation women are keen to steer clear of.

A common belief is that after marriage a couple will want to start a family—which data shows is somewhat the case—beginning a well-reported domino effect regarding women’s careers.

 

A 2023 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than half (53%) of births between 2015 and 2019 occurred to married women, with a further ≈25% occurring to women in cohabiting situations. The research by Gladys M. Martinez, PhD, and Kimberly Daniels, PhD, also confirmed 20% of married women have their second child within 24 months of the birth of their first.

Of course, not all women who marry and change their surname will have kids: They are increasingly happy with a DINK (double income, no kids) lifestyle or are childless not by choice. But the notion remains that outsiders might—incorrectly or not—draw conclusions about how that woman’s career will progress if she is a wife and, by association, a future mother.

 

This data is demonstrated in the real world, Chaudhary said, by the fact women even have to consider the ramifications of sharing personal details: “I have many respected women scientist mentors who would not say a peep about their personal lives, ever, because it was always on their mind of how they would be perceived professionally.”

 

Career ‘depth’

In his many years of working with new brides, one thing has become clear to MissNowMrs.com’s Bradicich: Depth of career can influence how much of a problem a name change presents.

 

Bradicich launched MissNowMrs.com in 2006 after watching a friend struggle with the mountain of paperwork the name change process entailed. In the nearly two decades since, Bradicich and his team have helped more than 400,000 women with the same issue and said a distinct pattern arises.

“For somebody who’s younger—maybe they’re at college or haven’t started a significant career yet—it really is just government forms that need to be tackled,” he explained. “It’s a matter of making sure they’re done directly and in the right order, but that’s very much a procedural problem.”

 

But he continued, “Once you move into a professional world, there are a lot more variables. You have to change your name with payroll. Once you do that it sets the ball rolling with company emails changing, and then you have to worry about professional certifications and licensing. All of that needs to change to stay consistent, otherwise you’re going to run into problems. Depth of professional career is a big factor.”

 

The impact per experience also leads a corresponding awareness of what a changed moniker entails, though individuals still find themselves getting caught out, added Bradicich.

“It’s only at the far end of the professional group where they are trading on their name, that their name is part of their career, that they consider it,” he told Fortune. “When you get away from that I think there’s not a lot of consideration. People jump in with both feet.

“The place that we see people haven’t considered is when they’re traveling, and start the process without considering how long it’s going to take. You get travel documents, passports, driver’s licenses that don’t match and that creates all kind of hassle.”

 

Digital detox

A name change can not only hit “reset” in a chronically online world, but also adds a layer of privacy, Jamie White, an Ireland-based life coach and business mentor, told Fortune.

White, who has guest lectured at his nation’s top universities such as Trinity College and Dublin City University, is increasingly seeing individuals using their name “strategically.”

 

He explained: “In a digital age where everything is tracked, by the time somebody gets to a professional level or perhaps their career’s evolved, there’s a whole track record. So it can be very advantageous to say, ‘New career, new name, new me.’ It can be a digital whitewash.”

It’s also a useful tool for individuals looking for a bit more anonymity online. Just ask the teachers trying to keep their social media profiles hidden from the prying eyes of students.

 

With a longer-term lens, a name change could also provide a hack around biases unfortunately built into education and hiring systems. For example, a 2023 study from the University of Michigan examining 30 million records found that when students with a surname in the back half of the alphabet (K to Z) were graded alphabetically, they got lower scores than if they had been marked randomly.

Likewise students with initials earlier in the alphabet (A to E) tended to grade higher than the random sample. While the study states that this bias has a “prominent long-term effect on a student’s career,” further hurdles have been discovered in recruitment platforms.

 

An ongoing study from the United Kingdom’s King’s College London—which analyzes more than 12,000 job applications—found international discrimination is still alive and kicking. It revealed applicants with English names received approximately 27% of the positive responses for leadership roles while non-English names received less than half of that, at 11.3%.

While a change to outwit such bias is a damning reflection of hiring processes, White has encountered other (more positive) strategic decisions. The coach helps teach other people his craft, and said differentiating one’s legal and professional name—“almost like a stage name”—can be massively helpful.

 

“A big part of coaching is putting [yourself] out there, but people have a real block about doing that as they are: on their existing socials and platforms, to their existing friends,” White explained. “Generally the crutch they lean on is that they change their name. As soon as they changed their name it was like taking the chains off—especially the more established professional types who gave themselves a new facade online to detract from the past.”

 

Does it feel right?

Ultimately the only factor that really matters when it comes down to a name change is whether the individual wants to.

And while people change their names for a variety of reasons, White said the simplest way to mitigate any confusion in a corporate setting from outside sources is to be open about the decision.

That could be something as simple as a “reintroduction” post on social media, or reminding people in an email signature that your display name might change soon.

 

He said: “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, so if someone opens up in a more difficult space like business, then in the long term, it’s going to invite people in.”

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

 

The needle is also changing across the board, added Chaudhary—a necessary conversation that has been a long time coming.

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

“One of the things that’s happening already is that women are coming together and talking in formal and informal spaces. I have a few different women-only Slack groups of scientists…and the name change conundrum is discussed all the time. So the whisper network is working.

 

“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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