Written by Mialise Carney, COSS Communications Student Assistant
In March, as a part of Women’s History Month, the College of Social Sciences female faculty hosted a panel, “What Should I Call My Female Professor?” to discuss the use of honorifics and titles for women in academia. The panel included Dr. Takkara Brunson, Dr. Cristina Herrera, Dr. Larissa Mercado-Lopez, Dr. Jennifer Randles, Dr. Aimee Rickman, and Dr. Davorn Sisavath.
The discussion was inspired by an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from December 2020 written by a man about Dr. Jill Biden that patronizingly advised her to stop using the title “Doctor” because she received her EdD in education, not medicine. It was something Dr. Randles could relate to when in the past, while responding to emails, she noticed several students referred to her as “Mrs.” or “Ms.” Randles, while in the same email they referred to male colleagues as “Dr.” despite some of them not having their doctorate degree.
With this panel discussion, Dr. Randles wanted to create a safe space to talk about these inequities in titles. “It feels demeaning, although I know it’s not intentional. It’s not uncommon, it’s a microaggression. It signals larger inequities in academia,” Randles said.
The PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy degree is a terminal degree, meaning the highest degree one can achieve in their field. There are two kinds of doctorates, professional doctorates who practice with their degree, like medical doctors, and academic doctorates who contribute to their field through research, writing, and helping others learn through teaching. To earn a PhD, students do several years of coursework and must complete an original body of work that innovates or expands their field. This can take anywhere between one to ten years.
The PhD is much older than the MD and historically has been used to signify the time, research, skills, and expertise a scholar has contributed to their field, rather than medical proficiency like the MD.
“We were the original doctors,” Dr. Mercado-Lopez said about PhDs.
Dr. Randles’s and Dr. Jill Biden’s experiences being undermined for insisting on their titles are not uncommon—they are familiar to female faculty and specifically intersect with race, ethnicity, age, and culture. Dr. Hererra talked about her experiences being called “kiddo” and “la niña” by male colleagues, highlighting the microaggressions related to her Chicana identity, age, and scholarship.
“My title is a badge of honor,” Dr. Herrera said. “These are the ways our positions are erased and undermined, especially for women faculty of color. I insist on my title in communicating with students as a way to demonstrate to students how they are also capable of pursuing PhDs.”
For Dr. Mercado-Lopez, the title is also a way to honor the work and activism of the Chicana women scholars who came before her that paved the way for her to also pursue a career in academia. It’s a way of celebrating and honoring her own struggle through graduate school while also raising three children, with no previous model or mentor to show how to do that.
“I’m making visible and normalizing women of color with PhDs. I also use it as a teaching moment to teach the norms of academia to my students,” Dr. Mercado-Lopez said. “I’m still optimistic about the title and what it does. It’s a responsibility to grow the next generation of women doctors.”
Dr. Randles uses the title as a teaching moment in her classroom, especially to unpack the history of the word “Mrs.” It originally was an abbreviation of the word “mistress,” but now it has come to mean wife. For the majority of history, when women got married their entire identity was erased, including their name.
“It’s simple,” Dr. Randles said. “When a boy is born, he is mister from the moment he is born until he dies. As women, our titles change based on our marital status. With ‘Dr,’ a highly educated woman isn’t defined by her marital status.”
Dr. Randles highlights how titles have a long racist and sexist history that indicates who even had the right to marry. She argues that it is incredibly profound for women to have an identity or title that is not defined by a relationship to a man.
Each of the panelists emphasized that using the title “Dr.” also honors their personal journeys in completing their research and earning their final degree. Dr. Sisavath shared that she grew up in a low socioeconomic community in public housing, where college, let alone a PhD, was inconceivable for most of her life.
Even in high school, her white male counselor told her college was too expensive for kids in her neighborhood, encouraging her to apply to trade schools instead. She pursued college anyway which was personally and financially challenging, but found community and mentorship in the women’s studies program where women of color faculty supported and encouraged her to pursue her MA.
“I use my title because it demonstrates the important work, support, and community that have allowed me to earn a doctoral degree,” she said.
Dr. Rickman explored the idea of the hidden curriculum and how encouraging students to learn the hidden “rules” of academia early sets them up for better professional relationships throughout their academic career. Using the wrong title is often received as a slight or a sign of disrespect which can lead professors not to respond to emails or treat students like they’re not taking the course seriously. When students use the wrong title, she takes the time to teach them the correct one and the reasons why it matters.
The panelists discussed how the recent controversy surrounding Dr. Biden’s title highlights a persistent discrimination in academia. They agree that it revealed the extent to which women are still invisible in the collective imagination of academia—women professors and scholars in higher positions are often seen as students or asked “when the professor is going to get here,” while they are standing in the front of their classroom.
“He is writing it to Dr. Biden as a first lady,” Dr. Randles said about the author of the op-ed, “A title with a history connoting her relationship to a man. She is probably the most highly educated first lady in the history of the U.S., but she is the first first lady who shouldn’t use her title? It’s 2021 and we’re still struggling with these things.”
Dr. Brunson explored how Dr. Biden’s use of her title also signaled an advocate for higher education in the White house. As education has become more diverse, public and private financial investment has dropped. Dr. Biden, a doctor of education who works in a field of primarily women (especially in the k-12 school system) has the opportunity to advocate for making higher education more accessible.
“Women are given different salaries, but expected to take on different work,” she said. “We do the standard, but also do a ridiculous amount of mentoring that slows down our ability to do research,” Dr. Brunson said.
Dr. Sisavath explored the idea of unpaid labor that women and diverse women faculty are required to take on in academia. They are expected to mentor, advise, do advocacy work, and lead diversity committees where they are often the only diversity on the diversity committee. This places women of color in academia in a place of both hypervisibility and invisibility, so it is important that they use their titles in professional settings to emphasize the work they do and why it matters.
In giving advice to students and staff, the panelists advised students to always look at the syllabus if they’re uncertain, because the syllabus usually lists the professor’s name in the way they want to be referred to. “Professor” is a good catchall if you’re unsure if your professors use the title “Dr.” Always be professional first, and feel free to ask your professor about their title directly. It can open lines of communication, and a conversation can reveal more about the professor’s research, academic experiences, and teaching style.
“Language is no small thing,” Dr. Rickman said, “It’s shared meaning, collaboratively understood realities. Language is used to shape and understand and affirm who we are. It shapes our norms and values, and affirms hierarchies that are quietly unjust.”