What we call each other — professional titles in academia
Professional titles are not used equally in academia, specifically women and other minoritized academics are often stripped of their titles on purpose or by accident. This is an equity issue, as it devalues the hard work, tenacity and creativity of our colleagues and does not foster a equal culture of inclusion and belonging.
I like how Dr Amy Diehl coined this the act of “untitling”:
Untitling is the process where professional credentials are not evenly used for colleagues, specifically where there is an omission of titles for women, people of colour, and members of other marginalised communities. This has the effect of devaluing the credentials and expertise of our colleagues, and represents an equity and inclusion issue. As noted by others, this falls broadly under challenges associated with the “Gender Respect Gap” explored by Professor Deborah Cameron.
Cases of untitling have been reported widely in academia:
and in the literature:
The removal of titles and familiarity can also be weaponised, such as this example where Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez called out [Vice President] @Mike_Pence following the 2020 US Vice Presidential Debate.
The literature explores this in more detail and highlights how untilting can occur in environments where we have white-male dominant group (e.g. in Engineering fields).
This provides an extra benefit to those who are in the dominant group — their credentials are not called into question and are by default assumed, and they can opt of professional title use to seem ‘in touch’ with trainees and the general public while maintaining authority. This is built into our culture as we have an inherent assumption about their credentials (see the paragraph from Messner extracted at the end).
This extra benefit represents an extra equity hit for women, as it the benefit is not shared those who are not in dominant group, as their credentials are often (casually, and sometimes inadvertently) overlooked and efforts to reduce professional distance can reduce perceived authority.
Together this means that untitling has the effect of creating and sustaining an uneven platform of authority, devalues their hard work and fails to recognise expertise. It works against efforts to sustain inclusion and belonging.
Furthermore, there is an extra burden, as people who have been overlooked and untitled in this way can be viewed negatively for raising the fact that someone forgot that they worked for several years and successfully defended their PhD thesis (or other professional accolade acknowledged with a title). Meanwhile, people like me (a white-man, i.e. a member of the usually dominant group) seemingly can get extra brownie points for raising the issue in a blog post like this. Reader — I write this as I don’t want brownie points, but I want you to respect your colleagues more and behave better.
If you have made it this far, I really hope you have also clicked on one the links I’ve already provided. You are listening to a man tell you to behave better — if this is the only reason you are listening, then might want to think a bit.
Please go read the articles by Dr Amy Diehl and Dr Leanne Dzubinski on untitling and uncredentialing, and the other great work shared below. Centre women’s voices where you can and note that their words are better than mine. I wrote this article because I was asked to as part of my role at work (and I want to inform better practice at my home institution). The blog post makes this work go further, and provides some public view of our efforts to try to create a more inclusive work environment.
Ultimately, I can also hope that this post may persuade one more person to pay attention and do something different next time.
- Actively consider how you would prefer to be addressed by students, the public, and other forums of communication. This may change based upon the power dynamics between you and other parties, as well as the general audience, platform, and format in which you engage.
- Consider your preferences may be affected by your privilege (i.e. the barriers you have not had to overcome) and seniority.
- In public forums, default to the highest form of address for individuals if you are uncertain.
- When you introduce yourself, e.g. at the start of a course, onboarding of trainees, clarify how folks should address you. This can be included when you introduce your TAs, office hours, pronouns and more.
- If you have time prior to an event you are involved with, ask colleagues how they wish to be addressed in this forum. Please try to make that time too. This is doubly important if you are convening or moderating the event, and actively manage and watch for the norms that are being established at your event. You can always step in and retitle people when people accidentally forget.
- If you are the most senior person present (or being presumed to be the most senior), consider what examples you are setting and the impact of this on more junior and/or marginalised colleagues.
- When you hear a colleague being untitled, consciously make a note of this. You can raise this in private with whomever did this afterwards (they may not have realised this). If you need to speak, you can make sure that you specifically retitle the individual in this follow-up, .e.g. “I agree with Dr YYY, and echo the thoughts that Dr YYY was saying,…”
- If you notice instances of untitling (e.g. written communications) ask for it to be corrected, updated and if required, reissued. Remember, you don’t get brownie points for doing the right thing — because that just the right thing to do.
Note that this brief discussion is more nuanced, as care should be taken collectively with regards to the use of titles and authority, and how this can be used to (unnecessarily) reinforce social hierarchies where professional titles are incorrectly used as a method of dominance.
“We need to stop ‘untitling’ and ‘uncredentialing’ professional women” Dr Amy Diehl and Dr Leanne Dzubinski
“Documenting the Gender Gap in the Use of Titles in Academia” Dr Olga Shurchkov
Chapter 2 “The Gender Respect Gap” by Prof Deborah Cameron, in “Innovations and Challenges: Women, Language and Sexism” edited by Prof Carmen Rosa Caldas-Coulthard
“White Guy Habitus in the Classroom — Challenging the Reproduction of Privilege” Messner (2000) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1097184X00002004005 [excerpt on next page]
Excerpt from “White Guy Habitus in the Classroom — Challenging the Reproduction of Privilege” Messner (2000) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1097184X00002004005