Why gender bending baby names are more than just a trend

Apr 14, 2015 at 1:39 p.m. ET
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Years ago I worked with a man named Eden. His brother was named Blair; his sisters were Daryl and Raphael. Their mother had just given birth to another girl and decided that this time she would let her name herself. For four years they referred to her as "Baby Girl" until she finally chose the name Sara (she left off the "H" since she was, after all, from a family of provocateurs).

But maybe Sara decided that was enough. She would put an end to this gender-ambiguous naming trend in her family. Aside from having a more traditional girl's name, she was also the only one in a family of artists who chose a career in business.

Instinctively, she may have known that the name you are saddled with is going to predict how your entire life will turn out, and science has proven that to be the case.

How your name affects who you become

A 2005 study found that girls with boys' names did better at "boy things" like math, science and sports. It's not because they were naturally better at those activities, but because teachers treated them differently and encouraged them differently than more traditionally named girls. They were favored, if you will, and therefore given more opportunity to excel in those areas.

Conversely, the study also found that girls with more feminine names excelled at more conventionally feminine subjects, like writing and the arts, for the same reasons.

There is no question that our identity is shaped by the way we are treated by others. Social psychologists call it the "looking glass self," and 50 years of research shows that our name is the one key factor that can predict how others will react to us. A girl named Hunter is expected to be a beautiful, wild extrovert, while it's OK for a girl named Emma to be smart, stable and shy.

Achievement is key if you have a boy name for a girl. Psychologist and author Richard Zweigenhaft Ph.D. found that oddly-named women are more likely to find themselves in books like the Who's Who. New York University professor Dalton Conley agrees. He says that "Girls with unusual names may learn impulse control because they may be teased or get used to people asking about their names. They actually benefit from that experience by learning to control their emotions or their impulses, which is of course a great skill for success."

While all of that is probably true, I would add that parenting and the environment an oddly-named girl grows up in probably shapes most of her goals, her identity and how likely her parents are to support whatever it is she chooses to do. That wide breadth probably has a lot more to do with the outcome of her life than just her name. Simply due to the fact that the kind of parent who chooses an odd name for their girl is probably going to do some pretty radical parenting.

However, the news isn't all good for women with male names. In an extensive study, economist Gregory Clark found that it's more likely an Anna or an Eleanor will attend an Ivy League-level school than a girl named Maxwell (sorry, Jessica Simpson). Specifically, he says that an Eleanor is 100 times more likely to go to Oxford than a Jordan.

Here's why you'll see more of this trend

Once the gender-bending naming trend thing gets going, it's a moving freight train. You either get on board or you get out of the way. Pop culture seems to dictate that, since the "pop" part stands for "popular." It is inevitable when a cultural item's popularity begins to build.

A study out of the University of Pennsylvania says a name's popularity is influenced by the previous year's events, and that names are more likely to become popular when similar names have been popular recently. In other words, don't be shocked if you start to see little girls named North (Kim Kardashian), Wyatt (Mila Kunis), Marlowe (Eva Amurri), Royal (Lil' Kim), Frankie (Drew Barrymore) or Alijah (Kendra Wilkinson) pop up in 2016.

It's already happening. A recent story about a mom in Michigan who thought she was giving birth to a girl, who she was going to name Charlee, instead gave birth to a boy who she named Bentley. Why didn't she just keep the name Charlee? It's obviously a boy's name. She already has a daughter named Peyton, so she's clearly on the gender-bending naming trend train.

Maybe moms just want more for their daughters

There is a part of me that feels this trend is just a reaction to women living in a male-dominated society. We keep hearing that women earn 78 cents for every dollar that men do, without accounting for education and experience. This is true even in female-dominated fields, like nursing, where men still earn more money! ($5,100 on average) 

I understand that feminism is no longer about which gender is superior, but that we are all equals with equal rights socially, politically and sexually.

But there is a part of me that wonders about the motives of a mom who chooses a male name for her precious, perfect, sweet little baby girl. Is she just throwing her hands up and saying, "uncle," "I give," "I know there's a vagina here, but those don't seem to fare as well in this world, so let me call her Noah or Evan... or Cooper."