Men are seen as less powerful when wife keeps her surname: Study

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People perceive a husband to have less power in the relationship when his wife chooses not to adopt the man’s surname after marriage, a first-of-its-kind study has found. The study examined whether people’s perceptions of a man’s personality vary depending on whether his wife adopts his surname or retains her own. It found that people perceive a man as being higher in traits related to femininity and lower in traits related to masculinity if his wife chooses to keep her surname.

The tradition of women adopting their husbands’ surname after marriage is one of the most widespread gender-role norms across the world. To date, scientists have not examined how a woman’s marital surname choice influences others’ perception of her husband. Researchers from the University of Nevada in the US carried out three studies in the US and UK. The first two studies showed that husbands whose wives keep their own surnames are often described in terms that are counter to the gender-typical personality traits and power framework used for men.

They are described in more expressive than instrumental terms, and are seen to hold less power in a marriage, researchers said. “A woman’s marital surname choice, therefore, has implications for perceptions of her husband’s instrumentality, expressivity, and the distribution of power in the relationship,” said Rachael Robnett, from the University of Nevada. “Our findings indicate that people extrapolate from marital surname choices to make more general inferences about a couple’s gender-typed personality traits,” Robnett said. Results from the third study suggest that people are not unanimous in how they think about such cases.

“We know from prior research that people high in hostile sexism respond negatively to women who violate traditional gender roles,” said Robnett.

“Our findings show that they also apply stereotypes to nontraditional women’s husbands,” she said. According to previous studies, women who violate the marital surname tradition are viewed differently by others. They are described in terms of instrumental traits that in a gendered society are typically assigned to men. These include having a higher status, yielding more power, being more self-focused, ambitious and assertive. These traits contrast with the expressive characteristics that are typically assigned to women, such as being more nurturing, kind and having less influence and power.