Think Your Credentials Are Ignored Because You're A Woman? It Could Be

May 22, 2017
Originally published on May 22, 2017 5:03 pm

When I first became a professor, I was 26. And female. (I'm no longer 26 but still female.)

The combination made me anxious about whether students would take me seriously as an authority on the material I was trying to teach. I made a point of introducing myself as "Professor Lombrozo," and I signed emails to students the same way — especially those addressed to Miss/Ms./Mrs. Lombrozo or those that simply used my first name. I bought some collared shirts from Brooks Brothers; I made a point to never wear jeans when meeting with undergraduates. If I looked more like people's mental image of a professor, I thought, maybe I'd be treated like one, too.

Ten years later, I've stopped trying to dress like a 50-year-old man, but I still receive plenty of email directed to the imaginary Miss/Ms./Mrs. Lombrozo, who apparently teaches my courses. I'm still the professor whom people wandering the halls choose to interrupt to ask where the bathroom is. When students ask for an extension on preposterous grounds, I can't help but wonder: Would they make the same request of my male colleagues?

Women in academia and other professions have countless anecdotes along these lines — stories of minor (and sometimes major) awkwardness or disrespect, episodes that make them wonder: Is this happening because I am a woman?

The trouble is it's hard to know. Maybe I'm the one interrupted for bathroom navigation because my office happens to be near some point of maximum disorientation. Maybe my male colleagues receive just as many emails directed to "Mr." and just as many preposterous requests from students. The anecdotal data suggest this isn't so, but anecdotes are no substitute for careful data collection and analysis.

That's one reason why a new paper published in the Journal of Women's Health is so valuable: It systematically evaluates one of the experiences that women anecdotally report, the experience of having their credentials ("doctor" or "professor") dropped in forms of address.

The paper, authored by Dr. Julia Files and several co-authors, analyzed how speakers were introduced during Internal Medicine Grand Rounds at two medical campuses. Using video archives, they found 124 grand rounds that involved introductions and, from these, identified 321 episodes in which one person with a medical degree introduced another with a medical degree. Teams of coders went through these interactions, noting whether the person making an introduction was male or female, whether the person being introduced was male or female and whether the title of "doctor" was used in the introduction.

The results were striking. When a female doctor was introducing another doctor, she almost always used the doctor's title: Male doctors were introduced as "doctor" in 57 of 60 cases (95 percent), and female doctors were introduced as "doctor" in 45 of 46 cases (97.8 percent). But when a male doctor was introducing another doctor, the form of address depended on whether the doctor being introduced was male or female. Male doctors were introduced as "doctor" in 110 of 152 cases (72.4 percent), but female doctors were introduced as "doctor" in only 31 of 63 cases (49.2 percent). The anecdotal observation was confirmed: Women were less likely to be addressed with their title. And in this case, the effect was driven by differential treatment from men.

Single anecdotes support multiple interpretations, and so do single studies. Perhaps these introductions do not reflect widespread differences in how men and women are addressed but instead show something particular to the two medical campuses that were studied. Perhaps the interactions (improbably) happened to involve more instances in which male introducers were close friends with female speakers than the reverse. Such alternatives are possible, and there's always room for additional research.

But alternative explanations become increasingly implausible when considered in light of a broader body of research revealing systematic disparities in how men and women are treated in many professional contexts. For example, a study published in 2003 found that letters of reference written for male doctors were more likely to repeat "standout" adjectives (such as "excellent" or "exceptional") than were letters of reference written for female doctors. A study published in 2013 found that scientific abstracts were judged to be of higher scientific quality when they were presented as authored by a man versus a woman. These examples are just two among many.

The next time an email from a student comes for "Ms. Lombrozo," I won't know if it has anything to do with my being a woman, and it will be hard to assess whether my absent title reflects a deeper issue that could affect my experience or effectiveness as a teacher or a scientist. But I will know that I'm not alone and that identifying systematic gender-based disparities is a first step in understanding which matter most — and how to bring about change.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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