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By Christine Ro -A recent op-ed piece telling Jill Biden to drop her title sparked criticism – and made the issue of untitling more prominent (Credit: Alamy)
There are disparities in whose knowledge and experience get acknowledged. That’s why professional titles matter, especially for those less likely to be perceived as experts.
“I’m fed up of people not introducing me by my titles in public forums. I am a Dr (medic & PhD). I’m an Associate Professor. I worked hard to gain these titles & I don’t give permission to omit them. Just because I’m an ethnic minority woman doesn’t mean that I’m just ‘Nisreen’!” tweeted Nisreen Alwan, a public health professor at the University of Southampton in the UK, last year.
Alwan explained she had no issue with people using her first name in conversations, emails or on social media, adding: “But it’s a common phenomenon introducing experts in public forums/platforms which leads to more gender & ethnic bias in science and society by enforcing socially conditioned stereotypes.”
While many agreed with her comments, Alwan was also criticised for being ‘uptight’ and ‘insecure’; some people who recognised the gendered aspect cast doubt on whether ethnicity was a factor. Yet her experience is far from unique. Across many fields, women who have earned formal titles report that others neglect or dismiss these titles, or even condemn women’s claims to them. The situation is especially fraught for younger women and women of colour. And while many people claim to dislike titles because of their associations with elitism, this supposed egalitarianism often only extends to one gender.
For better or for worse, professional titles continue to matter in the modern day – especially for those who are less likely to be perceived as experts, despite their qualifications.
Titles and title-holders are varied
Titles can mean slightly different things around the world. In Western nations, they generally come when formal study or professional qualifications have been completed, and denote sustained work to acquire expertise in a particular field. In some cultures they are applied more loosely. In Colombia, the title ‘doctor’ is used more liberally for a person in any position of authority, says Ana Maria Porras, an engineering researcher at Cornell University; and in Nigeria titles that denote respect and status but not necessarily an official qualification, like ‘marshal’ and ‘engineer’, are used more broadly. In Australia, in keeping with its overall informality of language, titles are used less than in the UK and US, according to Leo Kretzenbacher, a linguist at the University of Melbourne.
While the share of people with professional titles will differ between nations, as a group title-holders are diverse. For more than a decade, women have been the majority of people earning PhDs in the US. There have also been dramatic strides toward gender parity in the medical field. Across the OECD countries, the proportion of female doctors shot up from 29% in 1990 to 46% in 2015. However, there were major differences within this group of wealthy nations. Women made up just 20% of doctors in Japan, but 74% in Latvia.
Gendered differences also persist across specialities, salaries and seniority levels; in some age brackets title-holders as a group are less diverse. In the US, the largest group of black women with doctoral degrees is aged 30 to 34, half a decade younger than white women, according to census data from 2018. But though this age difference is slight, there’s a major gender difference: while 35-to-39-year-olds make up the largest group of women with PhDs, for men the largest cohort are older than 75. And because perceptions of expertise are often linked to seniority, the prevalence of men in these higher age brackets makes it more likely we’ll see them on our TVs or hear them on our radios, perpetuating the idea that authority figures are generally older white men.
Thus, titles can be especially important to demonstrate the expertise of women who might appear youthful. “I have had students in the past address me as ‘Miss Porras’, and in those cases, I point out that women are less likely to be referred as ‘Dr’ after finishing their degrees than men,” explains the 33-year-old Porras. “Right after I graduated and started my current postdoctoral position, I would introduce myself and people would react to say, ‘You have a PhD? You are a doctor? You look so young!’ But I never heard people say similar things to my colleagues who are white men.”
Indeed, in academia, some men say they prefer to drop their titles to foster more informal relationships with colleagues and students. Not all women can afford to make the same choice, as their expertise is less likely to be taken for granted. Kretzenbacher believes that the gendered difference is “an expression of male privilege – that you as a male academic, you get the benefit of the doubt that you’re an expert, or that you are a professor or a doctor or something”. That benefit of the doubt gets extended to women, and certain types of women, less often.
Yet insisting on a title can backfire. In 2018, health lecturer Siobhan O’Dwyer was slammed for criticising Qantas staff for calling her ‘Miss’ rather than ‘Dr’, the title that appeared on her air ticket. O’Dwyer’s point was that there was a disparity between men and women being called Dr, yet detractors (male and female alike) sneered that she was a ‘needy’, ‘crazy, entitled & vain feminist’ who need to watch her ‘ego’, ‘sweetie’.
Devaluing women’s expertise
In fact, there’s abundant evidence that women’s professional titles are used by others far less frequently than men’s titles. Some of the clearest data comes from the medical field.
In one study of formal meetings in US hospitals known as ‘grand rounds’, researchers found that women introduced speakers by their formal titles 96% of the time. But men introducing female speakers only used their titles on 49% of occasions, although they applied the titles to male speakers 72% of the time.
This is more than a trifling annoyance. Credentials are very important to patients’ perceptions of medical providers’ experience and skills. The disparity also matters to women’s careers. Women in medicine continue to be promoted less and paid less than their male counterparts, which may be linked to persistent under-valuation of their expertise.
Stereotyping can affect patient experiences as well. Back in 2014, when she was pregnant, Athina Vlachantoni’s GP couldn’t find her online pregnancy records. It turned out, she was told, that the default gender for the title ‘Dr’ was set as male. Vlachantoni, a professor of ageing and demography at the University of Southampton, was essentially rendered invisible because of her professional status. (NHS Digital has not responded to a request for comment.)
This disparate use of professional titles speaks to a larger discomfort with women in positions of authority. Linguist Deborah Cameron describes this dismissal of women’s titles as the ‘gender respect gap’. Leadership researchers Leanne Dzubinski and Amy Diehl refer to it as ‘untitling’ (the companion concept is ‘uncredentialing’). It applies not just to academics, but to clergy, coaches, members of the military and others.
If she calls attention to her title or insists on it, she’s not being feminine or humble – Leanne Dzubinski
“Untitling and uncredentialing are forms of devaluation, where women are taken less seriously or treated as less important than men,” comments Diehl, a gender equity researcher and the chief information officer at Wilson College in the US. But these concepts apply to marginalised groups more generally, including people of colour and from poorer backgrounds.
Her colleague Dzubinski, who researches intercultural education at Biola University, California, notes that untitling and uncredentialing can be subtle. In light of stereotyped expectations of women as being modest and self-effacing, “a woman’s title may seem not to matter, because her role is not seen as independent. If she calls attention to her title or insists on it, she’s not being feminine or humble. It’s a definite pitfall that women with professional titles navigate.”
Similarly, historian Fern Riddell started tweeting under the hashtag #ImmodestWomen in 2018, rejecting the criticism that women like her should be more humble about their achievements.
Many scientists have chosen to include ‘Dr’ in their Twitter handle or profile as a clear stamp of authority. Porras recently added ‘Dra’ to hers as a nod to her native language, Spanish. “I decided to incorporate it after seeing many rounds on Twitter of people diminishing the accomplishments of women who have PhDs,” she explains. The last straw was “Joseph Epstein’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal belittling Dr Jill Biden for correctly using her title”.
Porras is referring to an infamous 2020 article that mocked Jill Biden, now the US First Lady, for daring to use her title. The article also infantilised her by calling her “kiddo”. The backlash to that article prompted many like Porras to declare their titles more openly, like Biden.
“I think often, being part of a minoritised population in this country, the way I look challenges people’s assumptions of what people with PhDs look like,” Porras reflects. “In the opposite case, I also do a lot of public engagement/outreach activities with Latinx communities and in those settings, I do notice that many times people in the community use my title with pride.”
Dzubinski and Diehl have suggested that women support each other’s use of titles in professional settings. Workplaces and those who untitle women, however inadvertently, can also take a more active role in stamping out individual expressions of bias.
But systemic change will of course be harder to achieve. As Dzubinski puts it, “The heart of the issue is the persistent, sometimes unconscious, but sometimes all-too-conscious belief that women are fundamentally inferior to men and that it’s okay to treat them that way. Until society values men and women equally, we’re likely to continue to see women devalued in this way.”