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Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Psychology, Sustainability

What’s in a (female’s) title?

The old John Cleese show Fawlty Towers had an episode that has always stuck in my mind. A couple is checking into the hotel and Cleese’s character Basil becomes ever more confused because the couple challenge his patriarchal views of the world. You see, both the husband and wife are doctors and therefore check-in as Dr and Dr. While the humour in the scene is supposed to be at the expense of Basil’s outdated views this scene has not sat well for me over the years. The reasons why have become amplified with the recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (which I refuse to link to) that questions Dr. Jill Biden’s use of the title, refers to the distinguished and respected scholar as kiddo and questions the very validity of her research. But even more than the article itself is the onslaught of individuals who can’t grasp why this is a gender equity issue. While it is true that the article does not focus on Dr. Biden’s gender any professional female is all to familiar with the Basil like attitudes towards the skills, knowledge, and, yes, their titles.

Files et al (2017) studied how physicians and scientists introduced each other during rounds and found that females tended to use formal titles 97.8% of the time when introducing a female colleague and 95.0% of the time when introducing a male colleague. The difference when a male was the introducer was significantly wider. They used formal title 72.4% of the time for male colleges but only 49.2% of the time when introducing a female colleague. Imagine the message that sends to everyone involved.

Takiff, Sanchez, and Stewart (2001) found that male professors were more likely to be called professor than their first name compared to female professors and this difference was greater for older professors. In a second study, Takiff et al also found that students rated male professors who were addressed by their first name and female professors who were addressed as professor as less accessible. So, since higher status is indicated by using the title professor and female professors were rated as less accessible if students referred to them as professor, female professors may be forced to choose between these two.

Atir and Ferguson (2018) examined preferences for using a surname only when speaking or writing about male versus female scientists. First, referring to a scientist by their last name only is associated with higher status and more deserving of rewards. As an example, a scientist referred to by their last name only are seen as 14% more deserving of a career award from the National Science Foundation. And, not surprisingly, people were more than twice as likely to refer to male scientists by their last name only.

Anecdotally, I know any number of female identifying professors who have been called Miss or Mrs by a student, and that on its own isn’t the problem. The problem is that our male colleagues, including those without PhDs report that they are consistently called Dr or, at worst, Prof. The use, or lack thereof of titles for anyone is evidence of the unconscious and systemic bias that we a fighting against everyday. Even without specific titles of Dr or Prof or the use of last versus first names, just the existence of a title for unmarried (Miss) versus married (Mrs) women speaks to why events like those I talked about at the start can trigger such a reaction. We need to continue to call this sexism out when we see it. We also need to claim the titles we have worked for so I sign this post off as Dr. Munro and I won’t let any “kiddo” tell me that I should do otherwise.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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