A marriage is made, in part, of compromises, and one of the biggest most women make straight off the altar is changing their name.
In a time where a strong digital footprint and good Google search results are part and parcel of the vetting process before hiring new employees, changing your name can have real career ramifications. According to a 2010 Dutch study quoted in Harvard Business Review, “A job applicant who took her partner’s name, in comparison with one with her own name, was less likely to be hired for a job and received nearly $500 less per month in salary.”
There’s no denying that many take their husband’s last names with joy, but for others, this patriarchal law became a tradition that hinders their career trajectory.
This is especially true for modern marriages, where the median age for first-time marriages in South Africa (according to 2014 research by Statistics SA) is 30 for brides and 33 for grooms. As a study for the University of Nevada explains, “More common than ever before, women are earning more degrees than men and are taking on different roles than what was once expected of them. With this new freedom, women have shifted from playing a supportive role within society to branching out and creating their own established identity.”
By your 30s, most careers are well-established or are on a steady trajectory, and your name is your identity and brand.
This was not always the case. The custom of women taking their husband’s names started with the English common law practice called ‘coverture’, which essentially meant that for centuries – from the 1600s to the 1960s – women had no legal identity of their own.
“At birth, a female baby was covered by her father’s identity, and then, when she married, by her husband’s,” explains the National Women’s History Museum, “The husband and wife became one – and that one was the husband. As a symbol of this subsuming of identity, women took the last names of their husbands.”
For Lize Sadie, content marketer, taking her husband’s extremely identifiable name (he is well-known within his industry, with a unique surname) would have hindered her career ambitions, and she chose not to take his name after marriage. She told us, “Having set up two businesses in my name and having built a reputation in the media and advertising industry over time, I didn’t want to jeopardize that in any way.”
She adds: “From a business point of view, the disruption for women who change their surname compared to men who do not is – in my opinion – quite unfair and rather unnecessary.”
For others, a changed surname proved a formidable hurdle. This was the case with Cindy-Lee Minnaar, a PR agency account director, who had trouble setting up her business in her maiden name after her divorce. Because of a legal ‘hangover’ in the South African legal system, Minnaar had her name automatically changed to her husband’s without her consent by Home Affairs. She only found this out when trying to register her business and says, “I went to Home Affairs to correct this and it literally took months! This deterred my business ventures and prospects. Now that my maiden surname is reinstated means that I can open a business bank account and trade with peace of mind.”
Unfortunately, South Africans don’t have this online freedom and need to physically go to Home Affairs to change all the necessary documents.
In the end, changing, or keeping, your name is an intensely personal decision that women make for a variety of reasons. Depending on your industry, and if managed correctly, a name change doesn’t have to hinder your career. Unfortunately, for many women, it does.
What South Africa’s female professionals say:
Lesego Marimo, Public Relations Industry (she changed her name): “Put yourself first when making such a decision. If you have already established a brand associated with your name, think about what will happen when you have to change it and if you will be able to handle what follows.”
Lize Sadie, Content Marketing (she kept her name): “It has made absolutely no difference to us that we do not share a surname. My husband is quite proud that we are slightly ‘different’ in that way, though the ignorance from some people is quite astounding; I remember a woman (with a corporate job, living in Cape Town) asking me why we got married if I didn’t want to take his surname. Then asking him if he is okay with it (as if I needed his permission)! Haha!”
Cindy-Lee Minnaar, PR Agency account director (she kept her name): “I think it’s less of a mission to keep your own surname personally and professionally. Mind you, my five year old daughter has asked me not so long ago why my surname is different to hers and I very politely told her that she has her dad’s surname, and I have my dad’s surname. She seemed satisfied with that answer.”
Jerusha Sukhdeo-Raath, Head of Video at News24 (she double-barrelled her name): “Changing my surname was one of the toughest decisions I had to make. I consulted every woman I respected on the issue. Some said they changed their names as a symbol of the start of their new family unit, others said they’d kept their name because a new family doesn’t require a new name. I made the best decision I could for my situation – I double-barrelled my surname creating a mouthful of a name that feels true to me.”
Kelli A. Hayes, Director of Corporate Strategy and Business Development (she kept her name): “My views on gender equality were a huge factor in my decision around keeping my surname. It is incredibly unfair that changing surnames is a woman’s burden – no one even asked my spouse about it. Also, I’ve moved a lot, which has resulted in friends all over the world, and I don’t want it to be hard for them to find me in the future. Everyone seems to have an opinion about this. Ignore them and concentrate on what works for you, your spouse, and your relationship. Societal pressure and expectations shouldn’t determine such a personal identity decision.”
Suhaifa Naidoo, Founder of Mashup Marketing, Digital Marketing Strategist (she kept her name): “Because my husband is a different race to me, many people think we are not married or not married legally. Our family has been amazing; no one has ever questioned this. I am lucky that we both come from very liberal and open-minded backgrounds.”
Helpful Tip: Use an intermediary surname
Says TIME magazine: “Use both surnames, either by making your maiden name your middle name, using both last names, or creating a hyphenated last name. Kim [Kardashian] took this approach initially. Shortly after exchanging vows with Kanye [West], she changed the name on her social media accounts to Kim Kardashian West. And just as Kim has done, you can use both surnames for a brief transition period to help people get used to your new identity before dropping your maiden name.”
– Written by Samantha Steele