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“I wouldn’t stand for that!”

03/08/2010

A while back, I went to a panel discussion featuring three people from various branches of academia. There were two male faculty and one female postdoc, who was standing in for her adviser as her adviser was sick. A grad student opened the panel by introducing the panelists as “Dr. So-and-so from X, Dr. Such-and-such from Y, and Andrea Lastname from Z.” (Names and institutes have been changed.)

First of all, no one else seemed to notice that the woman in the group was not introduced as “Dr.” even though she is a postdoc and obviously has a PhD. I realize that there may also have been a status effect, since the other two panelists were faculty and she was not. It’s still unacceptable, and it happens even when status is not an issue, or if a woman is more established than the men in a group. For example, it’s relatively common for students to call male faculty “Dr. Blah” and refer to female faculty by their first names. And one of the visiting faculty on my undergraduate institution’s department web page is referred to as “Ms.” instead of “Dr.,” even though her biography lists where and when she obtained her PhD.

Second, when I told my husband later about what happened (I didn’t want to risk being called a whiny/oversensitive/feminist bitch if I called out the grad student on his slip), he claimed that he would never have let that go if he had been there. He wasn’t there, but there were plenty of men with good ears in the audience, and though I know my husband is a very good person, I don’t think he alone has the ability to recognize and call out injustices like these as they play out.

I instead find it easy to imagine that he also would have failed to notice if he were there; no one was listening for it except me, apparently. So am I too sensitive to things like these? The problem is that even though people don’t notice themselves or others making these errors, they internalize the diminished credibility of the person whose degree was unrecognized. Their impression of that person will be damaged, even if only a little, by the improper introduction. And the fact that people preferentially fail to recognize the qualifications of women and other underrepresented groups (both in public settings and in blind job/fellowship application reviews) says that it’s not a random mistake, but one that follows from unconscious assumptions and also helps to perpetuate those unconscious assumptions. I don’t think I’m too sensitive; rather, everyone should be a little more alert.

Please. Please. PLEASE, actively pay attention to introductions. If you ever notice someone slighted at a talk, on a panel or web page, or even in informal discussion by the improper use of their title, say something. This is especially important for men to do (or people of the appropriate privileged group), since it carries more weight and reduces the chance of anyone being taken for a whiny bitch.

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