Why women's academic titles often go ignored

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·5 min read
US First Lady Jill Biden delivers remarks at the Samuel Smith Elementary School in Burlington, New Jersey. Dr Biden holds two master's degrees and a PhD in education. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Reuters
US First Lady Jill Biden delivers remarks at the Samuel Smith Elementary School in Burlington, New Jersey. Dr Biden holds two master's degrees and a PhD in education. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Reuters

Academic titles are often used without much thought. Recently, however, debate has centred on how the use of titles – or lack of – can have important implications for people, particularly women.

In January, US First Lady Dr Jill Biden became the first president’s wife to hold a paying job outside the White House. The 69-year-old attended the University of Delaware, Villanova University and West Chester University, earning a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and, in 2007, a doctoral degree, making her a doctor of education.

Despite these achievements, Biden’s use of “Dr” has come into question. At the end of 2020, the author of a Wall Street Journal op-ed suggested that the First Lady drop her title, claiming it was “a touch comic.” The subsequent backlash was severe, calling attention to an example of gender bias that many academics experience.

Women in academia and other professions have detailed countless similar anecdotes on social media, sparking researchers to dig deeper into the problem. In 2017, Dr. Julia Files and several co-authors analysed how speakers were introduced during Internal Medicine Grand Rounds at two medical campuses.

When a female doctor was introducing another doctor, she almost always used the doctor's title. But when a male doctor was introducing another doctor, the form of address depended on whether the doctor being introduced was male or female. Male doctors were introduced as "doctor" in 72.4% of cases. However, female doctors were introduced as "doctor" in only 49.2%.

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So why is there such a discrepancy in the way women’s and men’s academic and professional titles are used?

“Titles such as ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’ are typically associated with men and when women do have those titles, they will find themselves and their titles being ignored or belittled,” says Kate Sang, a professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt University.

“One of the areas where this has been researched is medicine, where title and profession overlap. However, many women with PhDs would have had sympathy with Dr Jill Biden, hence we saw the surge in the use of titles in social media handles. Women are challenging implicit gender biases that many probably don’t even realise they hold.”

While some women worry about being seen as elitist, others say it’s about leveling the playing field. “Women generally are behind the men in emphasising their professional titles, pushing themselves forward for promotion and asking for what they want in relation to their careers,” says Valerie O'Hanlon, career coach at Clarence Consulting. “Emphasising their titles is the first step in putting themselves on the same rung of the ladder as men.

“Language is very important, people see and hear what you say and make their decisions based on that,” she says. “Using your title gives credibility to what you do. If a woman is willing to drop her title, then what else is she willing to drop? Men won't drop their title.”

It is no secret that the scientific world is plagued by gender diversity issues. For women to succeed academically and professionally, they often have to work harder than their white male counterparts to overcome systematic and ingrained barriers.

Female academics are underrepresented at the higher levels of academia and among conference speakers. Research has found that not only are they paid less and saddled with more admin than their male counterparts, but are less likely to be hired in the first place. Women and girls are also subject to unconscious biases that develop at an early age, preventing many from pursuing careers in academia in the first place.

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It’s also important to remember that not all women feel these inequalities equally. For Black and Asian women, the discrediting of professional expertise can be particularly acute.

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“The thing is, for women to even succeed – academically and professionally – they will have needed to have worked harder than their white male counterparts,” says Sheryl Miller, a business coach and author of Smashing Stereotypes: How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only _____ In The Room.

“Success for women takes dogged persistence and sacrifice. PhDs and other titles symbolise and represent all those years of hard work culminating to a universally respected award,” she says.

“Women should flaunt their titles and be proud of this achievement, and they absolutely deserve to be addressed as Dr. or Professor – if that is what they are and choose to be addressed as such. It’s a much needed step away from the usual titles assigned to women that simply just indicate marital status and gender.”

Of course, some women may downplay their titles to appear more approachable and less threatening. Gender bias and stereotyping has long plagued women in the workplace, with ambitious women criticised as “bossy” or “aggressive” for displaying traits proudly displayed by their male peers.

Women may also drop their titles because they are uncomfortable with self-promotion. In 2019, a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper found women consistently rated their performance on a test lower than did men, even though both groups had the same average score.

However, the more women who are able to use their titles, the more it will help to normalise the perception of success and achievement in women across various disciplines, Miller says.

“At the same time, I wouldn’t admonish women who choose to downplay their titles because of the negative connotations and compromises that may stymie their career progression,” she adds. “To advance, women must tread carefully and wisely in order to negotiate a path to success that is beset by more obstacles than their more privileged male counterparts.”

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