The majority of women (59%) still take their husbands’ name after marriage, compared to 1% of men, according to a YouGov survey (unfortunately no data are available for same-sex marriages). Another common practice is for freelancers to trade under their maiden names. This means that female freelancers may at some point have to make a decision in their personal lives that could impact their professional lives. And things are not as straightforward as they seem. For a freelancer, it could be the perfect opportunity to rebrand or a risky career move.
Do you really need to change?
Before you start the process of potentially changing your email address, your website’s domain, your social media handles, printing new business cards and most importantly letting everybody know about your new name, start by identifying whether your business relies mostly on relationships or reputation. If your business is built on relationships, for example, you’re freelancing into a dozen different companies and you know them all personally, then a change of name won’t have any impact because you can directly communicate with them.
However, if you’re an expert and establishing a reputation in your field, you will win new business from recommendations and this is when you’ve got something valuable you don’t want to risk losing.“If you’re currently building your business via your reputation you probably want to avoid changing your name”, recommends Fred Burt, founder of Olix Consulting, who helps his clients create and manage their brands to drive business growth. Changing your surname can cause a communication misfire that can cost you business, warns Burt. What is the first thing someone does when they’ve been recommended a name? They google it. If you’ve changed your name, your work doesn’t show and you’re not getting the credit for it. “I kept my name”, says freelancer Lyndsey Clark, “I rely on twenty years of people recognising my name in relation to previous projects. It’s definitely easier not to change.”
Consider other options
It’s not unusual for freelancers to take their partner’s surname upon marriage and keep their maiden name for professional purposes. This allows for continuity in their portfolio and avoids the challenges previously mentioned. Using two names is also a way to separate and protect your personal life. Many have different social media accounts, with some to promote their businesses and others that are for family and friends. According to a CareerBuilder survey, 70% of employers look up job applicants on social media and 57% found content that led them to not hiring them. Illustrator Amy Balderston went for this option: “I opted to legally change – but keep mine for my work. Mainly in view of all having the same family name further down the line, but I felt I would have the best of both and hold my name close with my illustrations.” For her, it was also a compromise with not totally giving up her identity. Freelancers’ working hours may vary, and sometimes there’s no separation between “the office” and home, so having two names may also help with setting boundaries.
But it can sometimes feel like it adds to your mental load. “I spent rather a long time feeling almost schizophrenic when I went to events as I didn’t remember what name I’d registered under”, says Caroline Wylie, who eventually transitioned to using one name. If having two identities seems too complicated to you, would your partner consider taking your name instead? If they’re not freelancers, this might be more suitable. Photographer Jemima Willcox is getting married in July and her partner is taking her name. “He was certain that he wanted to have the same name as me, and he also felt it would be fair as my business is my surname”, she explains, “for me as a photographer I am my brand and I like being recognised for my name”.
When a new surname means new opportunities
If your surname carries an unfortunate connotation, is difficult to spell or is too common to stand out, then you might consider taking your partner’s surname. “I decided to change my name and rebrand as I went from 24 letters to 3. Best choice ever, now people can remember it and pronounce it as well!” says Marie-Charlotte Yao who is a graphic designer and illustrator. It could be an obstacle to your reputation spreading if, when clients recommended you to people, they wonder “how do I google their name? How do you spell it again?”.
According to Burt, digital considerations are key and searchability shouldn’t be overlooked. If clients misspell your name, they won’t get the right person. In some instances, changing your surname will make you stand out more. Beth Jowett conserves and restores oil paintings and changed her name partly because there is another person with her maiden name in the same field. “There had already been a mix-up between us so it seemed like the easiest thing to do”, she said.
Sadly, foreign-sounding names are still discriminated against. Recent research published by Nuffield College’s Centre for Social Investigation shows there is a clear divide. British citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds have to send 60% more job applications than other applicants before receiving a positive response from prospective employers. That number goes up to 90% for people with Middle Eastern and North African heritage. Burt confirms that “no name is neutral, and we’re all susceptible to bias.
If you have a regional or foreign name, think about the preconception your audience may have, because those nation-based stereotypes, whether positive or negative, can be powerful.” Toks Coyle, who recently started using her husband’s surname, experienced such difficulties during the 2.5 years she’s spent working as a Virtual Assistant. She has found it hard to get work compared to others. “It’s a big change to change your surname. But I think I will do it because I think I’ll benefit in the long run from having a Western surname”, she explains, “I’ve also found that I probably get about equal amounts of black clients as I do white clients, even though black people are only 3% of the UK population”.
If you’re certain that you want to change your surname, do it as soon as possible. As your reputation grows, so does the number of people in your network who will know you by your old name. The task of transitioning from an old to a new name can be complicated. “And your back-catalogue of work may well exist on third-party sites, which means it will continue to be under your old name, whether you like it or not”, warns Burt. A good time to transition is also when working on a very important project in your career so you can attach your new name to it. Ultimately, if you are in a position where changing your surname is a possibility, it can be the start of a brand new chapter in your professional as much as your personal life.