What’s in a name — Defining my professional identity

Rachel Saunders
4 min readSep 7, 2020

Aged 17 I legally changed my name to one that I was personally comfortable with and intrinsically expressed my identity. One of the challenges of transitioning was facing up to the issue of being a woman in male dominated work environments, and especially that using female pronouns and my name automatically freighted the whole weight of history onto my shoulders. I have never experienced outright sexism, though there have been occasions where I have been propositioned, told I was being overly emotional and manipulative, and been talked over. Being a professional woman is hard to explain unless you experience it first hand, and as I enter my PhD there is significant research both academically and anecdotally suggesting that women in STEM are far less likely to have thriving academic or industrial careers. So, this led me to question what is in my name, and how is it defining my professional identity.

Ideally, using my name should be simple, easy, and without consequence. It should not be freighted with assumptions, and while my name has a nice ring to it and does not stand out, it is still loaded with the simple fact that it is a feminine name and I am a woman. Within STEM subjects, especially the two that I have studied, almost all the scholarship and leading experts are men, and the subject areas I am moving into also have male dominated discourses. That I am bull headed and confident will only get me so far, as professionally I have to face up to the fact that there is a significant risk that I will earn less, be given less professional opportunities, and have to fight tooth and nail just to get those, all because I am a woman. This is a systemic issue, and one that I need to face up to now before it becomes too complicated to unwind once I have got my foot on the professional ladder.

With this background in mind, I also have to be aware of my trans identity and stepping into any gender neutral space that any personal rebrand might entail. I have written about my journey and how my gender is very much settled as female, yet, I have asked myself how much of womanhood should I put as a public face, especially in my professional life. On the one hand, by using my initials it is almost a retrograde step against feminist ideals, yet on the other for me to professionally break through it is something that I feel must do. Plenty of male academics, and a few women, go by their initials, so conversely it could be feminist as fuck in usurping an essence of male privilege.

While this may appear to be a small thing, and some of you are doubtless wondering why it matters, I believe it could have a significant impact on my career if I get this wrong. On the one hand it could hold back my academic career, should I wish to have one, and on the other I could lose whatever personal brand identity I already have with my full name. All of this has gone into my decision, and while it is a risk I think it is worth doing now before I have no options later on down the line.

One final factor has come into play over the summer in that there are already numerous academics with my given name publishing research in related fields. I have been getting emails from Academia.org and Researchgate with articles in my ‘name’, and while it is interesting to see their work, it is also clarifying that I need to distinguish myself from them to create space for myself in my choose field. This allows me to carve out my own path when I start publishing, without worrying that my brand is going to be compromised by anyone else through mistaken identity. I appreciate personal branding is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I feel it is important that I can present myself in the best light and find a professional identity that represents who I am, not a lot of assumptions and cultural baggage.

For that reason I have decided to professionally use my initials, R E J Saunders, as my chosen professional name, ideally shorn of any pronouns before I get my doctorate. I have already switched over my social media, blog, and LinkedIn. I am going to treat is an experiment for the foreseeable future to see how people react and engage with it, and I always have the option to revert back or change it to something new should I feel it is not working. On a personal relationship level I am comfortable with people using my full name, and nothing will change on that front, but this is about me finding a way to break through barriers and have a strong professional brand identity that can carry me forward into the next phase of a career.