Why the Debate about the ‘Dr.’ Title Matters

“Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo,”this is certainly not an arrangement of words one would expect to see in a sentence about the same person, nevertheless about the future First Lady of the United States of America. However, this was just the case in a recent op-ed article penned by Joseph Epstein in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

The article, which rapidly became forefront news a mere hours after it was published, incited outrage from the public. Many people pointed out the sexist language and condescending tone of the article, least of all its referral to Dr. Jill Biden, a 69-year-old woman as ‘kiddo,’ a term – which in this context – is nothing short of patronising.

It also led to a movement of professional women coming forth and changing their social media handles, adding their designated ‘Dr.’ title to their names in solidarity with Dr. Jill Biden.

So how did this article – one amongst thousands of opinion pieces published daily – capture the interest of the masses, and kindle such a response? And why is it relevant?

A Look at the WSJ Op-ed

A cursory analysis of the article reveals multiple instances of denigrating language towards Dr. Jill Biden. Mr. Epstein asserts that the title ‘Dr.’ should only be used by people with a medical doctorate – and not those with honorary or other type of academic doctorates.

While noting that Dr. Jill Biden has an Ed.D. (Doctor of Education), he points out that her use of the title “feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” He then goes on to mock the “unpromising title” of her Ed.D. thesis, advising her to “drop the doc” and to “give up the small thrill of being a doctor and be content with the larger thrill of being First Lady.”

While Mr. Epstein endeavoured to frame the matter within the broader topic of academic laxness (he laments the decreasing quality of Ph.D. and honorary doctorates awarded in present times), the article comes across as deeply supercilious. This is further enhanced by the fact that he admits to having “only a B.A. in absentia” but feels superior enough to comment on a higher level of achievement earned by a woman.

Additionally, the last sentence, urging Dr. Jill Biden to be satisfied with just being the First Lady, comes off as demeaning and belittles her ambitions, especially in light of the announcement that she plans to teach after becoming the First Lady.

The article, in its attitude and message, sheds light on a bigger issue than simply a woman in the academic field using the title ‘Dr.’ It was less about that and more about the way society sees people – particularly women – in working environments.  It also points to the systemic way in which women are made to feel less than entitled to their professional achievements and the lack of acknowledgement they receive for their work.

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Usage of the Title of ‘Dr.’

The debate about the title of ‘Dr.’ is a prevalent but inconclusive one at best. Some people, including those in academia, feel that usage of the title in social sciences and humanities is unsophisticated and immodest. Most newspapers and online news platforms also follow certain journalistic practices, where only medical doctors are referred to as ‘Dr.’ Thus, it is common for publications to not refer to doctorate holders with the title, or even for academics to not use it.

However, the crux of the matter isn’t whether people should use their titles or not; it is at the discretion of the holder to use whichever academic title they have received – often through years of work and training. Rather, the issue lies in how the use (or lack of use) of the title leads to certain perceived notions about a person and how those notions translate in the public sphere. This is especially true for women who have a harder time being recognised for their work to their male counterparts, regardless of their professional field.

The publishing of the WSJ op-ed led to a number of women coming forward and sharing their stories about being overlooked in the workplace. The derogatory tone of the article was all too familiar for some women who had faced similar hurdles in being taken seriously, and had their achievements and expertise unnoticed or acknowledged less, especially by male co-workers and higher-ups – or even amongst people they interacted with daily.

Casual Sexism and Gender Bias in the Workplace

Although women have come quite a way in the past few decades, making noticeable strides in different fields, there still exists a culture of sexism and bias which seems impossible to escape from.

Casual sexism and gender bias can manifest itself in many forms, often implicitly and not in ways you would imagine. It can be a male colleague refusing to hear a female co-worker’s ideas or scoffing at a suggestion. It could also be a refusal – either consciously or unconsciously – to accept that female co-workers are on the same level as male co-workers, regardless of the similarity of their professional experience.

­For instance, a research done on speaker introductions at Medicine Grand Rounds (MGR) showed that female speakers used a person’s professional title when introducing them more than male speakers, regardless of their sex. On the other hand, male speakers used a person’s designated title more if it was a man (at 72.4%) versus when it was a woman (at 49.2%).

While one study done may not be telling for the entire working population, it does acknowledge the existence of a problem which needs to be addressed. It certainly highlights the fact that women are taken are less seriously in professional terms, an issue which hinders and prevents their progress in the workplace.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Following the backlash of the op-ed article, the WSJ’s editorial page editor, Paul Gigot released a piece in its defence. He stated that it was “a relatively minor issue,” exaggerated by Biden’s media team for their own benefit. He further reiterated that as a prominent public figure, Dr. Jill Biden is now open for commentary evaluations.

While the latter points are true to a certain extent, it certainly doesn’t minimise the fact that the issue itself is a major one which needs to be discussed more. It also doesn’t lessen the misogynistic tone of the article which is harmful and problematic in itself. This also leads us to question why – in this day and age – people are still comfortable enough to voice out and even publish such opinions, in such tones. It forces us to examine our beliefs and what they might reveal about our unconscious biases. And most decidedly it asks us to evaluate the progress we think we have made as a society.

But for now, I’d like to borrow a quote from former U.S. Secretary of State and presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, “Her name is Dr. Jill Biden. Get used to it.”

Written by Iyath Adam Shareef