What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter.

A few days ago Dr Fern Riddell, a historian (who, like me, works on sex and gender), was involved in a nasty twitter conversation with a man who poured scorn on her expertise and – gasp! – what he considered to be her arrogance in defending her qualifications. In response to her refusal to be patronised, storms of women academics have been changing their twitter handles to include ‘Dr’. The negative responses are predictable. What does one word matter? What do these women think they’re proving to anyone? Who cares how you talk about yourself? And so on.

For a lot of women academics I know, Riddell’s is a familiar story. Outside academia, ‘Dr’ is a man. Despite the fact that increasing numbers of women are going into medicine, ‘Dr’ is also a medic. Academic woman come in for a double dose of slapdown for advertising their qualifications as a result, and the scaremongering hits in at full force. Use ‘Dr’ on your passport? You’ll endanger the lives of millions as you are forced, coerced, into performing an emergency tracheostomy in a Boeing 747, since your doctorate almost certainly required the removal of your common sense and your ability to say ‘no, I’m not a medic’. Other academics – I leave you to guess their typical gender – will tell you condescendingly that they have no need to use ‘Dr’ with their students. I prefer to be Dave. They respect me just the same, and by the way, did you see how my teaching evaluations didn’t contain a single comment on my clothing or my tits? Amazing. A woman who pretends to academic expertise is presumed to be overreaching or posturing, and if she points to her qualifications, she’s insecurely boasting.

I grew up with parents who both had doctorates. My father used his. My mother didn’t – except on her child benefit book, because she’d got so bloody fed up with people patronising her on the assumption that being pregnant makes you really, really stupid. I later found out that it’s pretty common for women with doctorates not to use the title, especially if they’re not working in academia (and, of course, far more women than men are being pushed out of academia). So, when I got mine, I used it: I went to the bank; I put it on my work email signature; I ticked boxes and filled in forms with it. But I didn’t put it on my twitter handle. And, like Cinderella at midnight, I retreated nervously from the idea of using it beyond the magic circle of inner-city Cambridge.

A couple of months ago, I moved from Cambridge to rural Yorkshire, with my partner and our daughter; at the same time – inevitably – I went from being Dr Allen who works at Cambridge University to being Dr Allen, excuse me, is he there, or could you take this parcel in for him? I can see that it could be arrogant – and it’s certainly unwise – to have too much of your sense of self bound up with where you work and what you call yourself. But, for me as for an awful lot of women, it’s a real issue. A lot of us won’t get permanent academic jobs – we’ll find other things; we’ll decide to take it slowly; we’ll go part time, and for most of us it will be fine, but it will also be a much commoner experience for us than for our male peers. A lot of us will write theses, but we won’t write the books that could have come from those theses. A lot of us will write a first book, but not a second book. You might say it doesn’t matter. I certainly won’t pretend I’ve got something tucked away in a drawer that’s going to change the state of the cosmos or cure a rare disease. But, it’s still a loss, and a loss I’m very conscious of at the moment, as I wait in vain for someone to publish that brilliant paper I need to cite for my book, only to discover she gave up on academia after that conference, or check to see if someone else ever got their thesis off the ‘forthcoming, CUP’ lists only to find she’s taken a career change. These are literal ways in which female academic expertise is lost or removed from circulation; effort wasted. For me, using my title – on twitter, on everything else – currently feels a bit like an act of faith, a promise to myself to keep my work from being erased, to keep on going against the nagging worries about academic career safety and its gendered challenges.

As I’m writing this, I’m revising chapter 4 of my forthcoming book. In it, the fantastic heroine Floripas – who shatters gender stereotypes across the board – offers a neat illustration of the power of describing your most forceful and expert self. In a coolly outrageous act of violence, Floripas breaks into a jail to free imprisoned knights, snatching up the metal bar holding the keys to the jail and braining the unfortunate jailor with his own property. Excusing her violence to her father, she calmly transforms this moment of impetuous rage into one of warrior-like decision, declaring: ‘I slew him with a mace’. I love this moment, not only because the narrator lets us glimpse how Floripas pictures herself, as she slams the keys into the jailor’s head, but also because the real weapon here is not the block of keys, nor the mace, but the word, which transforms a woman’s outburst into a warrior’s triumph. I don’t suggest we rise up, en masse, to club our opponents with whatever the twenty-first century digital-culture equivalent of a mace might be, but I do think we might stand to benefit from Floripas’ example, and to channel her as a woman never shy to represent herself as expert in a male-dominated sphere.


88 thoughts on “What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter.

  1. Thank you for this – it speaks so much to me at the moment. Just to add my voice, I have just withdrawn my candidature from a fellowship as I was shocked by the gender dynamics on the interview panel – seven men, three women, of which two were silent all the time and the other only asked one question… and I was called “Ms” instead of “Doctor” routinely. I just can’t cope with that, I thought (and also we didn’t agree on chronology and methodology). It’s a shame as the project was nice but I could not take it being patronised and demeaned by “grey gammon” men again.

    • I’m sorry to hear that. But honestly – repeatedly referring to you as Ms rather than Dr is not just rude, it’s unprofessional. You might just have dodged a bullet there. All the best for your career in the future.

  2. Thank you! But, oh, that is awful! Yes, you definitely don’t want to work anyplace that would treat a candidate like that. Incredibly rude.

  3. Both my parents have doctorates, also, and my mom made full professor before my dad, which he took as a point of pride, bless him, and I loved answering the phone when people asked, “Is Dr. W there?” and saying snarkily, “Which one?” Thanks for this fabulous post! xottf

  4. My daughter in law is a Dr. So is her husband, my son. I address the annual wedding anniversary card to Dr. H. H. & Dr. M. H-C (she uses both his and her surnames). I do it because I know how hard both of them worked to be called Dr. & I’m proud of them both.

  5. I thought this had all been sorted out long ago. Neither myself or any of my peers with doctorates ever use the prefix ‘Dr’. In fact, when I lectured at a university, the terms Dr and Prof were used as a ‘put down’ – and meant the speaker didn’t think much of the recipient! Please, please, no more Drs!

    • It clearly hasn’t been sorted out long ago, or Dr Riddell wouldn’t have been required to defend her title.

    • Wondering where you lectured. My experience is the exact opposite. A PhD is an achievement. If lecturers and professors are made to feel embarrassed about their titles, then what are potential and current doctoral candidates going to make of that? Why would they consider a PhD if their mentors see it as a source of shame? Bizarre.

    • a patriarchal world and systems prevail – in so many ways -not shared power and care and mutuality and respect and reciprocity and inter-relationship – what is happening to us as human beings – all over the world – rhetoric and headlines and abusive power reign

  6. Pingback: What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter. | Spirituality Today with Dr. Carolyn Reinhart

  7. Pingback: What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter. — Jeanne de Montbaston – unnbaze

  8. This is twenty first century, if we are still doing the Tarzan-Jane thing then we are never going to be truly civilized. If it is a backwater country we would say they are not yet advanced but in a developed society we should stop thinking of male dominance in all fields so our ladies won’t be forced to keep defending their qualifications and be accused of pride.
    If a man is well qualified, he is respected, why can’t a lady be respected too whatever her qualification may be?

  9. I can completely, and sadly relate. Since I got my PhD and continue navigate my way through short term academic positions and research projects hoping to come even within reach of that holy grail, I shamefully can’t count the number of times I’ve changed my signature from a Dr. prefix to a PhD suffix and back. And it saddens me more to think that most people hoose to assume a Dr. is male as if choosing to err on the side of caution, as if assuming a man is a woman is unquestionably a lesser evil.

  10. A perfect example of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I worked for a woman Dr. once and in a male dominated industry – STEM. I thought – how special she was, to be this Dr. in the room, a woman, an ivy league graduate, no less, etc. etc. I revered her and respected her – having been through grad school, I know that academia is NOT easy and I’m not just referring to the curriculum, but to the politics. I saw often how men would talk over her, interrupt her and ignorantly be surprised that it was SHE, a woman Dr., and respond with, “oh, I thought you were a mister”. But, she laughed it off and/or disregarded it. I thought to myself and in response to witnessing this that one doesn’t need validation from others if they truly know their self and accomplishments – in fact, nobody can take this away from you. BUT, lo, she had a tremendous flaw – she was outwardly disrespectful of women in the arts (for example, marketing or PR) and did not praise or reward her female subordinates for their achievements. The list goes on, but this has not been the first time that I have witnessed this. In fact, it’s amazing to me how very unsupportive we are of one another – women, especially in the workplace…. and this is despite our title and our achievements. We are taken seriously by example and when we are not taken seriously by our own kind, we are doomed.

    • Yes, it’s tough. I think some people who come through adversity end up feeling a bit ungenerous by the end of it. Understandable, but not fun to experience.

  11. I insist that my students call me Dr Karen and they love it. However, my male colleagues, especially my Dean (who does not have a doctorate) insisted on calling me Miss Karen. Until I had to file a complaint. It was intentionally demeaning. I never wanted to be pretentious but I’m not taking it anymore.

    • It’s not pretentious to refer to yourself as Dr. if that’s your correct title. If you have a PhD or a medical degree then your correct title is Dr. and anyone who has a problem with that… well, the problem lies with them, not you.

  12. Yes. We need to really think about these things. The more women who use their title, the more these assumptions will be challenged. I am ashamed to say that when my daughter said her teacher was called ‘Dr B’, I asked what ‘he’ was like. She was horrified, as was I.

    • ‘The more women who use their title, the more these assumptions will be challenged.’ – Yes! This!

  13. She slew her father with a mace? I think I’ll give Floripas a pass. It’s not obvious to me where I live that it’s women who are victims. They talk about it a lot but most of them, minus the medieval paraphernalia are quite capable of slaying any male who gets in their way.

    • 😀 Ha! Not quite. She killed the jailor then told her father she did it with a mace. But no, she’s no victim – and nor should she be.

  14. Thank you for a thought-provoking post. With my wife, who is a co-director, I run a communications consultancy. About half our work is with universities. The main group we work with consists of early-career (doctoral students and post-docs) in STEM subjects. I typically go into university departments once or twice a week. What I notice is this:
    1. each university we deal with has an equal opps policy;
    2. their equal opps policies routinely and systematically fail to deliver equal opps;
    3. the fact that women are under-represented in senior positions in STEM is typically treated as a source of perplexity, to be responded to my much hand-wringing and talk of how ‘complex’ the matter is;
    4, whereas many of the processes that produce inequality seem to me far from mysterious and, in fact, rather transparent. They include work (a) culture, (b) use and abuse of time, and even (c) matters of dress. Overall, my impression is that the system is pretty well designed to ensure the reproduction of inequality;
    5. I am particularly concerned by the uneven level of supervision. Sadly, I quite frequently encounter examples of unprofessional practice, ranging from poor feedback (where ‘poor’ can me delayed, thin, or confidence-destroying) to outright sexism and harassment. Though this isn’t a simple male-to-female matter, in my experience the problems most often arise when a woman has a male supervisor.

    This raises the question of who supervises the supervisors? Universities need to have much stronger, more effective, ways of protecting research students from poor supervision.

    • I agree with this. I was very lucky and was given good training (at the University of York, for what it’s worth), but I know colleagues who feel they were sent in unprepared. When you think teachers in schools spend months or years training, it’s a worry. Though I think increasingly there is more emphasis on teaching supervisors.

  15. I saw it on Twitter! Not the nasty conversation but what women talked about afterwards. It was under hashtag #ImmodestWomen (the hashtag was trending). The way I see it–nobody becomes a Dr by twiddling their thumbs. Like, I don’t even have a degree and I don’t think I could get one ever, I don’t have the patience to study.

  16. Just a comment on the specific point of using the title ‘Dr’. Whenever someone I know receives a doctorate, I always look forward to be able to greet them as ‘Doctor’. I always think it odd when doctors don’t use their title (I’ve always wondered why Gordon Brown seemed never to be referred to as Dr Brown). But I would like to make two pleas:
    1. We should avoid using ‘doctorate’ and ‘PhD’ as synonyms, since this ignores other forms of doctorate (e.g., EdD). I’ve seen several job adverts that in effect discriminate on this score.
    2. Recognise the dignity of other titles. As a plain ‘Mr’ I often sit on panels in conference, co-present with academics, and so on. When I do so, one of two things tends to happen. Either I get given the title Dr (presumably on the assumption that nobody without a doctorate could possibly be called upon to say anything intelligent) or I’m not given a title at all – the Mr just gets dropped, as if only the title Dr (or Prof) could have value. Patronising behaviour on the part of academics is sadly not uncommon.

  17. Pingback: What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter. — Jeanne de Montbaston – KMStudio

  18. I am currently on the fence about whether I should take a doctorate or get a corporate job. Corporate jobs are infamous for gender discrimination and I thought a life in academia would give me less of such disappointments but after reading your article, I have a new perspective. Thanks for this, it will surely help women know what to expect and be better prepared when they decide to further their studies. Well written and your book sounds very interesting!

    • Thank you! I love being in academia, but certainly it’s not perfect and there are definitely gender issues. But, that’s true everywhere. Good luck with whichever decision you make!

  19. Pingback: What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter. – excerpts from my diary

  20. I really enjoyed this story and was drawn to it from the very beginning. As a father with 3 daughters and 2 stepdaughters 2 granddaughters I have always promoted “Girlpower” but never the idea that they could do what a man could do (Why would you want to?) But choose however to be GREAT…good job “Dr”

  21. Thank you for this – it was particualrly insightful as my one Life Goal is to obtain a doctorate. I was suspicious that I will one day come across the problems you’ve described, but didn’t realise the extent. My boyfriend and I often joke, however, that people who’ve not met us will assume we are a gay couple, as ‘DR & MR’ will be on invitations and post, they’ll be shocked when a 5ft 3in girl greets them!

  22. I do hope the Dr movement achieves the desired end!
    Okay, I know America is vast, but in my experience in Michigan academia…this was a battle fought a few decades ago which by and large seems to have been won.
    However, since I was one dissertation defense short of my PhD I can’t say for sure. But I can add, many people outside academia keep calling me Dr anyway, even though I explain that having studied for a PhD doesn’t mean I have one.

  23. Thank you very much for writing this post.
    I got my Ph. D. way back in the1970s, and it amazes me that attitudes still persist in viewing women’s qualifications as inferior to those of men.
    For all the women planning to get an MD or a PhD — I would say “Go for it!”
    I’ve come to appreciate the PhD I have beyond its initial educational & career goals.

  24. Pingback: What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter. – Aaron Kernaghan

  25. What an honest post! I appreciate your insight on the complexities that women face even after the attainment of educational achievements. There is no dispute in the visible gender disparity in academia – among others spheres. As I will be pursuing my PhD in Gender, Women and Feminist Studies, I am intrigued to investigate this issue further. I would love it if you make a series on this topic. This so needs to be discussed.

  26. I do see the old white man’s club playing in several departments across many Canadian universities. My wife and finished our PhD a week apart, and it was clear to see how condescending some of the committee members were towards her. I am certain that we live in a misogynist society, but I have hard time to understand how using the “Dr” designation is going to change the problem. Quite honestly, I believe that titles and designation its what drive us apart (I am “X” and you are “Y”). While I am disgusted by the sexist society that we live, I am not in favor to create further societal tension. But once again, I could be totally wrong.

  27. A man is assumed to be competent until he proves otherwise.
    A woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.
    All we can do is slog on, I suppose, use our proper titles, and keep proving ourselves competent, but it sickens me how, decade after decade, this misogynist prejudice persists.

  28. I wonder how much of some people’s negative reaction to women’s use of the “Doctor” honorific is part and parcel of Americans inate anti-intellectualism. How about using the title “professor” whenever possible? If you have a doctorate, and are a lecturer or an adjunct, call yourself a professor.

    • Erm … I think that would be a bit of a problem! I’m in the UK, and here, ‘professor’ is a title you get when you’re an extremely senior academic. I am about ninety rungs of the promotion ladder down from being ‘professor’.

  29. Pingback: What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter. — Jeanne de Montbaston – cpellot

  30. I’m a nurse practitioner with a PhD and I work for a mobile health clinic– I’m the provider on duty. The unit is driven by a man. If I had a nickel for every time someone walked right past me and addressed the driver as “doctor” . . . .

  31. Pingback: What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter. — Jeanne de Montbaston | My Blog

  32. Interesting… I hold a PhD in Religious Studies from Theological Seminary. I also hold an Ayurvedic Counselor title. I use both Dr. Wangmo and Wangmo PhD depending on the need. I think women need to make their own individual choice around their titles.

  33. I’m old enough to have embraced the habit of addressing people as they desired, displayed most often by how they were introduced. Lacking that information, we, as students, addressed staff and faculty men and women as sir or ma’am, respectively. It seemed to have worked well enough.

    As for parcels, do people actually address them to Dr. X Y? I still send letters and such to X Y, PhD or X Y, PharmD, and that sort of thing.

    • I think anyone calling me ma’am would face an unladylike grin – though it does sound charming. Over in the UK I don’t think it has been a normal form of address for decades.

      Dr is much more normal here (we don’t do the ‘name, PhD’ or ‘name, MD’ type of thing).

  34. What a fantastic post! I can certainly relate to nearly everything that you’ve written.

    When I earned my doctorate, it was so important for me to use my title almost as a shield while living in Europe. Having the title of Dr. _____ certainly made a difference in terms of how I was treated, how my expressed opinions were received, and how “approachable” I was to certain social and academic circles. Sad to say, but true.

    I have to say that in the USA, the experience is quite different. Males and females often eschew using their Dr. titles in many social situations outside of academic institutions. This definitely differs from that in Europe. Even the local baker greeted me each morning with my title. (Personally, I find that to be a bit much, but I fully understand and respect the fact that this is a cultural difference.)

    I know that while living in Berkeley, CA, there are more folks with doctorates per capita than one could believe, and as a result, few people feel the “need” to point out the assumed. In SoCal, a university where I taught insisted that everyone be referred to as “Professor”; the reasoning being that the students would treat all of the educators with equal respect. (I can’t say that I’m quite on board with that sort of reasoning, either.)

    I can certainly relate to the varying comfort levels of using my title in certain places, regions, or situations to my advantage (or in some cases, disadvantage). Nevertheless, I’m grateful and proud to have this prerogative for the rest of my life.

    The title alone shouldn’t be what we rely on in order to receive respect. We must simply expect it, continue to earn it (life continues after that defense), and when necessary, blatantly demand it.

  35. Kizuri chajiuza kubaya chajitembeza.

    A Swahili proverb that translates …

    ‘The good thing/product sells itself while the bad one has to market itself. ‘


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