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The Name Game

This week I’ve decided to look at sex in the gender, rather than procreational sense. The main reason for this, other than being anxious not to appear too one-sided a columnist, is that I had several experiences during Hell Week that have exemplified all of the delights and downsides of having a gender-inspecific name.

Anyone reading this named Sam, Robin, Jamie, George, Jo/Joe or possibly Danny/Danni will hopefully see what I am getting at, not to mention the whole host of Asian and other foreign names which appear bafflingly gender-neutral to me and many others.

My problem is that Alex is a fairly common name for people of either sex, being an abbreviation of either Alexander (Male) or Alexandra (Female) or occasionally, and more confusingly, Alexis (either). Unfortunately, because it is relatively common, people tend to assume that once they know someone named Alex, that is the most common gender for that name. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told, accusingly, “Alex is a boys name, my friend’s brother is called Alex” or any number of similarly mystifying arguments.

One of the major consequences of this is hearing the shock, confusion or outright disbelief in the voice of someone who has telephoned after previously conversing exclusively by e-mail. It goes something along these lines:

Caller: I’d like to speak to Mr. Alex Godden, please.
Me: (Politely) I am Alex Godden.
Caller: (Impatiently) No, I’d like to speak to Mr. Godden. Is he available?
Me: (Starting to get annoyed) There is no Mr. Alex Godden here, I believe you want to speak to me.
Caller: (Confused) Do I have the wrong number?
Me: (Definitely annoyed) No, I am Alex Godden.
Caller: (Dawning comprehension) Oh, you’re a woman!

This is fine when it’s a telemarketer (we all know how much fun can be had winding up those guys) but if it’s a potential employer, as has been the case recently, it can be rather awkward. I have begun to wonder whether I should mark my CV or job applications in some way to make my gender more obvious (pink scented paper perhaps?). But first I need to understand whether these situations are actually to my advantage or not.

This takes me back to an interesting incident during my LEAD studies last semester, involving a case which I am sure you remember with fondness, particularly regarding the cute little cartoon airplane pictures. The case protagonist was a certain Jan Carlzon. In the UK, Jan is a common woman’s name. The combination of this, my usual speed-reading style and a surprising lack of gender pronouns in the case meant that I managed to read the entire case under the impression that it was about an extremely successful female CEO. That in itself wasn’t interesting, but what fascinated me was my reaction when I spoke to my learning team the next morning and, once they had finished laughing, they pointed out my mistake. I re-read the first few pages of the case (just to check that they weren’t pulling my leg) and it dawned on me that I was reacting totally differently to Mr. Carlzon’s actions than I had when I believed him to be a Mrs. I like to think of myself as a fairly progressive and liberated woman, but I found an instinctive gender bias within myself that I found slightly disturbing. I had a similar experience in LCA last week when a manager I believed to be spectacularly arrogant and possessed of a remarkably low emotional intelligence, turned out to be a woman. I was shocked, and then I was shocked that I was shocked.

Another interesting situation that my use of the name Alex has led to was regarding my first few articles for this esteemed journal. People reading my tongue-in-cheek suggestions on dating and sex at HBS who thought I was male reacted very differently to those who assumed I was female. Apparently it is more acceptable for a woman to suggest sleeping with Professors and preying on Law School students than it would be for a man. Actually, I do agree, but I still find it funny to watch people’s reactions when it dawns on them.

Putting these experiences together, I have to conclude that employers will react differently to my resume reading it assuming that I am a man and that it will be taken into account when, consciously or unconsciously, employers consider the gender balance of their interview offers. What I do not know is whether this will work in my favour or not. One concern is that the mere fact of their being confused about my gender will lead to people making negative assumptions about me, perhaps suspecting that I did it on purpose in order to throw them off-balance and potentially trick them into revealing gender bias in their recruiting procedures. On the other hand, it does result in me being more often interviewed by men than women (as some companies seem to believe that only another woman is capable of evaluating a female candidate), which I prefer, as even if the job sounds boring there is flirting potential. Actually, even if the job sounds interesting there is flirting potential…(OK, I had to bring sex in to the article at some point).

In the end, I have decided to leave my name as “Alex” on my resume (as I detest being called Alexandra) but sign myself as “Ms.” on my cover letter. Then, if the employer still assumes I am a man, I have proved my theory that no one reads cover letters anyway.

February 26, 2007
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