Leigh Ann Humphries

Identity Check

Survey of female medical students assesses attitudes on surname changes after marriage

What’s in a name? Quite a bit, if you’re a young woman about to begin your career in medicine. At least that’s the takeaway from an online survey sent in late 2014 to slightly more than 100 female students at HMS. The survey was the brainchild of Leigh Ann Humphries ’17 and grew out of conversations she’d been having with her classmates, most of whom are in their twenties and thirties. The findings appeared online in the January 2015 issue of the Harvard Medical Student Review.

“We’re starting to make decisions about our careers,” says Humphries, “and about how family life and career might intermingle.”

Recognizing that decisions to marry often occur during the same span of years in which young doctors are training, building networks of colleagues, and publishing research, Humphries decided to ask her female classmates about whether they planned to keep or change their surnames after marriage. She developed a short survey, emailed it, then waited for the responses.

She didn’t wait long.

“I started sending out the surveys in August 2014,” says Humphries. “By October, I had already gathered a large majority of responses.” Of the 103 surveys sent, 75 elicited responses.

The respondents included eight women who were married, one who was engaged, and sixty-six who were single. Among those who were single, 65 percent wished to keep their unmarried name; 63 percent of those already married had kept their name. Although Humphries was not too surprised by the results, she was quite surprised by what happened after the surveys were returned.

“The surveys were anonymous,” Humphries says, “but a number of women emailed me directly, saying, ‘I took the survey and answered in this way. But I want you to have more information on why I answered as I did.’ ”
The unsolicited explanations indicated the responses were more nuanced and more diverse than she’d expected.

“Certainly many women wanted to keep their maiden names because of their academic accomplishments,” says Humphries. “But I was intrigued by the complex reasons respondents gave for their decision to keep their name. Yes, professional identity was a factor, but other reasons included recognizing cultural background, satisfying personal attitudes toward their name, and maintaining individuality and self-expression. One described her interest as a way of expressing ‘brand loyalty.’ ”

Some respondents asked Humphries why she hadn’t also surveyed the men in the class.

“It would be interesting to ask the men in my class how they would feel about the possibility of their future wives keeping their maiden names,” she says. “It would also be interesting to ask them how they would feel about the possibility of taking the names of their future wives, or of hyphenating their names.”

Humphries points out that changing one’s name is not a small decision for young women who are just beginning to establish themselves in medicine.

“It’s on our white coats,” she notes. “It’s embroidered there.”

Photo: John Soares