LONDON - Girls who are given feminine names such as Anna, Emma or Elizabeth are less likely to study maths or physics after the age of 16, a study has found.
The finding has spurred a warning to parents to think long and hard when choosing names for their babies.
Both subjects, which are traditionally seen as predominantly male, are far more popular among girls with names such as Abigail, Lauren and Ashley, which have been judged as less feminine in a linguistic test.
The effect is so strong that parents can set twin daughters off on completely different career paths simply by calling them Isabella and Alex, names at either end of the spectrum.
A study of 1000 pairs of sisters in the United States found that Alex was twice as likely as her twin to take maths or science at a higher level.
Part of the reason is that names provide a powerful image of a person and influence people's reactions to them. The study says an Isabella is less likely to study maths because people do not expect her to.
"There are plenty of exceptions but, on average, people treat Isabellas differently from Alexes," said David Figlio, professor of economics at the University of Florida and the author of the report. "Girls with feminine names were often typecast".
Figlio pointed to the controversy that arose over the first talking Barbie's phrase, "Math is hard".
"It is a stereotype and girls with particularly feminine names may feel more pressure to avoid technical subjects," he said. Not that they were any less capable. When the Isabellas, Annas and Elizabeths took on their tougher-named peers in science, they performed just as well.
To carry out the study, to be published in the Journal of Human Resources, Figlio calculated a linguistic "femininity" score for each name.
It was arrived at by using 1700 letter-and-sound combinations that could be associated as either female or male and matching them against the names on 1.4 million birth certificates. He also showed how harmful giving your child a "chav" or lower-status name can be.
In a study of 55,000 children, the exam marks of those with "lower-status" names - often spelled in an unusual way or including punctuation - were on average 3 to 5 percentage points lower than siblings with more traditional names.
One of the reasons was teachers had lower expectations of them.
Edyta Ballantyne, a primary school teacher in north London, said she would often be given the names of children in her class before meeting them and admitted it was hard not to form judgments.
In his book, Baby Name Report Card, psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, of the University of California at Los Angeles, tested a host of names to see how attractive people found them.
Some names immediately aroused images of success, others of popularity or kindness. On the whole, people judged to have more traditional names such as Rachel and Robert did extremely well. More alternative names scored badly. Breeze was given 16 out of 100, while Christopher received full marks. "A name is part of an impression package," said Mehrabian. "Parents who make up bizarre names for their children are ignorant, arrogant or just foolish."
Figlio said people should be more aware of the power of names.
"In ways we are only beginning to understand, children with different names but the exact same upbringing grow up to have remarkably different life outcomes," he said.
"If you want to give your child a name that connotes low status, then you need to be aware of the consequences."