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Documenting the Gender Gap in the Use of Titles in Academia

    The “Dr. Jill” (Biden) controversy swept social media like wildfire in early 2021, bringing yet another double standard for men and women to public attention. But to a female academic like me, “untitling” and “mistitling” has always been par for the course. For years, I would grit my teeth as I open an email from a new contact starting with “Hey Olga” or worse yet “Dear Mrs. Shurchkov.” If the email came from a student or advisee, I would try to awkwardly explain why addressing someone with a PhD this way is inappropriate. But it would not be as easy if the addresser were a professional colleague, especially if senior. My male colleagues never seemed to have to deal with this or to even care. (See Endnote 1 for a caveat about titles in Taekwon-Do.)
    Before I go any further, let me first explain “untitling.” Linguistically, the prefix “un” implies the act of taking away, which in this case refers to a removal of an earned title that diminishes perceived authority and credibility and undermines the hard work and expertise of the person in question. Anecdotally, we observe that women are substantially more likely to be referred to by their first names or a nicknames as compared to men of the same status and education.
    What is interesting is that the norms in academia are a bit different than in the rest of the world (academics are weird). Some of us actually prefer to be called by our first names, and we will eagerly tell you as much. I recently conducted a very casual and not very scientific survey within my social network in order to explore this and other issues related to titles among those who earned a Doctorate degree of some sort (Ph.D., M.D, etc.). (See Endnote 2 for more details about the survey.) The results shown in Fig. 1 confirm that some academics are at least ok with first names. While 58% of the sample of respondents indicated that they preferred to be addressed by their formal titles of Dr., Prof., or some combination, 17% were indifferent between first name and the formal Dr./Prof., and 23% actually preferred to be addressed informally by their first name.

However, among the survey respondents, women were significantly more likely than men to prefer to be called by the correct, formal title (Fig. 2), and women are, if anything, slightly more likely than men to correct someone when they use the wrong one (the difference is not statistically significant however). (See Endnote 3 for a caution about selection bias.) The simple reason for this might be that have to fight harder to establish credibility in their fields. I wrote here about my own pre-tenure mission to appear “serious” in my research, and using a more serious title is one way to contribute to this goal.
Despite this preference for formality, the reality is the opposite. Fig. 3 shows that, among those respondents who prefer the formal title, women are more than twice as likely to still be called by their first name half the time or more frequently.
Unsurprisingly, when I looked at the reverse error (being addressed formally with Dr. or Prof., when the first name is preferred), this literally never happened to a female respondent to my survey, while it     did occur in 12% of cases for men.
    While some academics might be fine being addressed by their first name, I know of no one with a doctorate degree — man or woman — who would prefer the use of “Mr.” or “Ms./Mrs.” in any professional setting (see Fig. 1). This is what I would call “mistitling,” where a title is used, maintaining some level of formality, but it’s just the wrong one. To an academic, being “mistitled” is worse than being “untitled.” This free response answer explains it perfectly:
"I prefer Dr./Prof. or my first name. I strongly dislike ms/mrs, because if you use a prefix you should use the right one."

    And Fig. 4 shows that women are nearly three times as likely to be mistitled as men are. In particular, 85% of women with a doctorate said that they get addressed by “Ms” or “Mrs” at least sometimes. The majority of male respondents (about 70%) said that they have never experienced this.
I tried to introspect about my own feelings about all this. When it comes to my first name, I am of two minds. When I first started teaching, I used to explicitly ask my students on the first day of class to call me “Olga.” I myself recall being an undergrad at Wellesley and addressing many of my professors by their first names, because they encouraged me to do so. I wanted to emulate this type of friendly and unpretentious atmosphere in my classroom. Only when I fully realized the presence of the gender gap in “untitling” did I become more formal and abandoned my strong push for the use of my first name (though I still allow it). Here are two excerpts from anonymous free-responses that match my sentiments exactly:

"As I age I feel I have earned more respect and grow weary of the “hey “first name” or “hey Mrs. my last name not my husband’s”. I worked hard to earn a doctorate and become a professor & I would like initially to be addressed more formally. (I will add that by the time my students become juniors & seniors, I actually don’t mind being addressed by my first name — still find “hey” annoying however!)"

"…in the wake of Dr. Jill Biden’s scrutiny over her use of Dr., and especially as a female academic, I think it is incredibly important for women to claim and own their titles. So although my trend is toward less formality in general — i.e., allowing students to use my first name rather than a title, especially if they are graduate students — I want to stand in solidarity with Dr. Biden and others who aren’t granted the respect they deserve."

As for “Ms.” v. Mrs.,” there is a distinction. Ms. Shurchkov is not ideal, but “Mrs. Shurchkov” is never ok. This quote from a free response puts it best:
As my mother used to say in the 80s, it’s no one’s business if I’m married. that used to embarrass me, but she was absolutely correct. “Mrs.” feels demeaning.
    What is interesting is that I actually have no qualms with “Mrs. Hencke” (my legal name), because it doesn’t presume a basic knowledge of my identity or preferences. Mrs. Shurchkov, on the other hand, implies that someone knows me professionally, and yet still chooses to mistitle me and to point out that it’s my being “of a certain age” and a “married woman” that should identify me.
    Here is another interesting perspective I gleaned from the qualitative data. Male respondents in the survey were much more likely than women to state that titles are not important (either to them personally or in their culture/field/industry), and that they “don’t really care.” But this answer by a male respondent makes a good point:

"I do get that this is part of my privilege to not care how others address me. I need to be careful how I address others. I also recognize that I do need to be more careful and should demand formality because it is important to others."

Thank you. Yes, professional titles do matter, and if you think they do not, then I agree — it’s a privilege.
    Let me end with a summary, possible policy implications, and directions for future research, as is obligatory for any (pseudo-)scientific essay.

    What did we learn? Among my respondents, women tend to prefer to be addressed professionally and formally and are as likely as the men to call out those who use the wrong title. And yet, despite making their preferences clear, these women continue to get untitled (called by their first names) and mistitled (called by Ms/Mrs) significantly more than men do.
    What can we do? The results suggest that, even if we encourage women to make their preferences known, the double standard is unlikely to cease to exist or diminish. Would it help to bring this topic to college orientations and instruct students to use appropriate and professional titles? Maybe. But the gendered “slip ups” are still likely to persist. Perhaps all gender gaps in academia and beyond start much earlier than this (see this report I co-wrote recently which finds that the stereotypes related to men and women in science develop at a very young age).
    What next? An interesting direction for future investigation would also be to unpack the demographics of women who are even more likely to get mistitled (think: women of color and younger women), as well as the demographics of the those more likely to use incorrect titles. For example, are women less like to mistitle other women than men are? The truth, as always, may be less obvious than we expect.


(1) I live two very different lives. In one, I am an academic economist and a professor. In another, I am a Taekwon-Do 5th Dan International Instructor. Both are highly respected careers, where seniority is reflected with titles. But this post is not about my Taekwon-Do journey, which I have written about a bit in the past. I got my black belt at 18, before I was a “Dr”, so “Ms. Shurchkov” doesn’t bother me, especially when it comes from my instructors and seniors. In this post, I explore what titles imply in academia where things are different.

(2) Participants were invited to take the survey via a Facebook post which was accessible publicly, so that the post could be shared to friends’ networks. It was explicit from the post that this is not a research study and would be used for a blog post on the use of titles in academic, and that the survey was not reviewed by an IRB. The survey was programmed in Qualtrics, receiving 125 total views, 83 responses complete enough to be used for some of the analysis, and 72 full responses where the respondent’s gender could be identified. Gender was inferred from a question where respondents could indicate whether a title of Mr. or Ms./Mrs. did not apply to them. Other demographics were not collected for the sake of privacy and confidentiality. I am extremely grateful for everyone’s honest and heartfelt responses. While I couldn’t fit every quote and free responses here, each one helped me formulate these thoughts more coherently and hone my understanding of this important matter.

(3) Please be careful when interpreting this and all results from this survey! This is a highly selected sample! (I reached out only to my network and the network of my friends/colleagues. Furthermore, the sample consists only of individuals from these groups who chose to take and complete the survey). I tried to see if women would be more likely than men to shy away from bringing up the error in title due to the expectation of backlash. While I do not find a gender gap among my respondents, it doesn’t mean that all women would be as willing to correct mistitling. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence of retaliation against women who report sexual harassment. And while mistitling is a microaggression, not harassment, we may still find instances of backlash, just less severe and hence less likely to be detected. On the other hand, women actually might truly be more likely to correct mistitling simply because they are more likely to have experienced it over and over again. More research is needed to understand the gender differences in reaction to being untitled or mistitled.


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