The inauguration marked a new presidential administration and a couple of other important firsts: Vice President Kamala Harris became the first woman and the first Black and South Asian to hold that office. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden became the first president’s wife to hold a paying job outside the White House. Despite these women’s career achievements, they’ve both been subjected to a common form of workplace gender bias that continues to play out in many organizations.
Recently, the author of a Wall Street Journal op-ed suggested that the First Lady drop the “Dr.” before her name. The backlash was severe, with many people labeling it “sexist” and “misogynistic.” Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Harris, tweeted: “This story would have never been written about a man.”
Even when titles are not used, it is diminishing to refer to women by their first names alone when using first and last names for men. After the vice-presidential debate in October, commentator Matthew Dowd referred to then-Senator Kamala Harris as “Kamala” while referring to her opponent as “Mike Pence.” When pointed out to him, Mr. Dowd owned his mistake and vowed to “be careful.”
U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also noted that it is disrespectful “calling women members of Congress by nicknames or first names while using titles and last names when referring to men of [equal] stature.”
Omitting titles for women while using them for men diminishes women’s perceived authority and credibility. Until now there has been no name to describe this phenomenon, making it difficult to draw attention to the problem and nearly impossible to search the internet for information. We propose a new term for this behavior: untitling.
Untitling happens repeatedly to women with professional titles, such as doctors (medical, research, and professional), professors, clergy, government officials, military personnel, and coaches. Recent research of 321 speaker introductions found that when female physicians introduced other physicians they almost always used their “doctor” titles (for 95% of male doctors and 97.8% of female doctors). However, male physicians introduced other male physicians as “doctor” in 72.4% of the cases, but only 49.2% of the time when introducing female physicians.
Most instances of untitling are not as deliberate as the one in the Wall Street Journal op-ed but can be just as damaging. As Professor Claire Hopkins pointed out, omitting titles when introducing women is “a subtle form of unconscious bias that may appear trivial, but can adversely affect their perceived authority.” Professor Hopkins described being introduced as “Claire” in front of a 2,000-person debate audience, while her male opponent was introduced as “Professor Blogs.” In another example, Dr. Susan Fong, who holds two doctoral degrees—M.D. and Ph.D.—was mistakenly referred to as “Ms. Fong” in an article in a physicians’ magazine for which she was the lead author. Her male coauthor was referred to correctly as “Dr. Kossoff.” Similarly, female professors report that students address them using their first name or as “Miss/Ms./Mrs. Lastname,” even when these professors have introduced themselves and signed emails with their professional titles.
Even women in the military may find themselves untitled, according to Dr. David Smith, a sociology professor at the U.S. Naval War College and coauthor of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace. Military titles are typically forgotten and unacknowledged when the women are not in uniform, while their male counterparts in civilian clothes are addressed appropriately.
Uncredentialing, another new term we offer, occurs when academic credentials are used for a male professional but omitted for a female professional. For example, a hospital newsletter recently included “M.D.” credentials with the names of three male physicians, but not after the female physician’s name.
Because this type of bias is so common, it’s easy to slip up. Recently, when speaking to a colleague about two consultants, a man and a woman who both earned doctorates, one of us (Dr. Diehl) inadvertently untitled the woman, referring to them as “Dr. Jones and Mary.” Catching herself, Dr. Diehl corrected the mistake: “I meant to say, Dr. Jones and Dr. Smith.”
There are several strategies that can help prevent untitling and uncredentialing of female professionals.
Responsible leadership: Those in authority (C-suite executives and managers) should set the example by using titles and credentials for women in formal and public settings. They can also communicate guidelines for the expected use of titles and credentials, including consistent use in written materials. Bias is best addressed from the top down, by leaders who set expectations and norms for the rest of the organization.
Polite correction: Executives and managers can correct others who have untitled or uncredentialed someone. A gentle comment such as, “Let’s hear more about what Dr. Malone thinks” can signal that titles matter in professional settings. If your boss or someone above you in the organizational hierarchy untitles a woman, gently follow with, “Yes, Dr. Collier’s comments were helpful.” Sometimes just using the title will remind others of its importance.
Positive reinforcement: If you’re the one being untitled, it can be tricky to call it out. If you feel comfortable, speak privately to the individual not using your title correctly. Also, consider setting up a buddy system. Both of you can reinforce titles, by using them when naming the other.
Apologize and correct: If you catch yourself untitling women, as Dr. Diehl did, apologize and correct the mistake. Owning up to our own mistakes can be a powerful example for others.
Call it out: Finally, no matter what level you are in an organization, if you hear or see untitling or uncredentialing, respectfully call it out. While these behaviors can be deliberate slights, many times they are unconscious and inadvertent. After Twitter users pointed out the errors, the physician magazine which untitled Dr. Fong corrected the online version, and the hospital which uncredentialed the female physician apologized and promised to “do better.”
The United States has elected its first female vice president and the incoming First Lady holds an educational doctorate—EdD. Let’s be sure to call them “Vice President Harris” and “Dr. Biden.”
Amy Diehl, PhD, is an information technology leader and former associate vice president at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and an expert on gender bias in the workplace. Find her on Twitter @amydiehl.
Leanne Dzubinski, PhD, is associate dean of the Cook School of Intercultural Studies and associate professor of intercultural education and studies at Biola University and a prominent researcher on women in leadership.