Joseph Epstein, writer, former lecturer, and holder of the prestigious title of BA in absentia, recently opined in the supposedly esteemed Wall Street Journal on an important issue during these times of crisis: the use of the “Dr.” honorific by Jill Biden, wife of U.S. President Joe Biden. Providing his unsolicited but clearly expert advice, Mr. Epstein urged her to “drop the Dr.” before her name, arguing that no one should call themselves by such a title unless he (my emphasis) has delivered a child. To clarify, the word doctor comes from the Latin docere and means “to teach.” Dr. Biden earned an EdD from the University of Delaware and teaches at Northern Virginia Community College.
Mr. Epstein’s vitriolic op-ed displays a closeted level of misogyny that has manifested itself during these past four years. He opens with a patriarchal and patronizing flourish when he refers to the 69-year-old Dr. Biden as “kiddo.” Mr. Epstein likely invoked Dr. Biden to generate headlines – and was successful in doing so. Fortunately, most of those headlines have been negative, save for a conservative subset of the population that eagerly latches on to these issues to decry the erosion of a society subsumed by political correctness, subtly revealing their own masculine insecurities in the process.
Mr. Epstein’s work reflects and perpetuates the overall minimization of women who hold advanced degrees and are employed in the world of academia. These women frequently face the blatant dismissal of their education, qualifications, knowledge and well-deserved titles, and are mired in a societal mindset that suggests their work and accomplishments are secondary to their marital status and motherhood.
These are the women who are statistically more likely to earn doctorates than men, yet less likely to receive tenure and more likely to receive less pay when they do so. They include people like myself, my colleagues and friends; women who have spent years passionately conducting research, writing and teaching, and in many cases doing so while “life happened.” That includes going through health struggles, multiple jobs, marriages, divorces, children, deaths, and ordinary familial responsibilities, just as Dr. Biden did.
I am writing from the perspective of a woman who has advanced degrees and, like many of her female colleagues, has found herself in unnecessary, awkward and at times frustrating situations. By students, I have been referred to as sassy, have been asked my age, and have had my looks and clothing commented on in front of my class. I have observed that while men have been referred to as Dr. so-and-so, I am referred to by my first name. I have listened patiently while others speak of their work, yet have been conveniently interrupted when I speak of mine.
For women, the inconsistencies are glaring. I have found myself refraining from mentioning my PhD to strangers for fear of alienating them, minimizing it in front of family for fear of appearing too career-oriented, and questioning whether or not I should even include it in my social media platforms for fear of receiving backlash if I appear “too feminist.”
My male colleagues are wonderful, but I know few who have had these experiences or have felt this way. At times, I envy their unapologetic embrace of their professional titles, and the unabashed touting of their accomplishments, ones which may be lesser than my own. As women, we are socialized to minimize our accomplishments, and it is time for a grand finale to that outdated mentality.
As a Dr. writing this article, and as a daughter of immigrants who is proud of the values her parents instilled in her, that she could do anything she set her mind to and that she should be proud of her accomplishments, I am going to reiterate the importance for us, as women, to embrace those accomplishments, big or small, academic title or not. We need to tout them when necessary, and encourage and applaud other women for doing the same.
If Dr. Biden wants to refer to herself as such, it is her choice. In embracing that title wholeheartedly, she will serve as a positive role model for girls everywhere. In her words, “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.”
Editor’s note: for the record, University Affairs uses the honorific “Dr.” in second and subsequent reference for anybody with an earned doctorate degree, i.e., Jill Biden in first reference and Dr. Biden after that.
Dr. Diana Cucuz is an instructor in the history department and the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.
Thank you! I am also the daughter of immigrants, who is proud to use her Doctor title! I hear your pain…On a good day, the students will call me “Miss”.
Bravo Dr. Cucuz! I totally support your position. Some years ago I was on a Calgary CBC radio panel where the physicians were introduced as Dr. So and So. Not me…I was Mary…..I was later told that the CBC did this in order to not confuse the public. Ridiculous! I challenged this and was told that the CBC had changed its policy and practice…I hope so!
Dr. Mary Valentich
As a male PhD holding academic, I am horrified to read of the culture of minimizing the achievements of my female colleagues, but sadly not surprised as I have seen it happen too. We need to do better.
Feeding into this dialogue is the policy of our national broadcaster, the CBC when reporting science and other academic topics, where the CBC will staunchly use ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’ and not ‘Dr’ for those of us with PhDs. (I am told the concern is that the use of PhD will confuse Canadians – although this seems not to concern PBS)
While CBC’s policy is likely evenly applied across gender, I am left wondering whether the national broadcaster calling PhDs ‘Dr.’ might help elevate the achievements and status of my female colleagues when their research and success are more widely disseminated to the general public by the CBC.
It seems I need to add the Globe & Mail, although there is a clear gender difference in this example … story today about how Canada messed up with covid vaccine delivery, citing Dr. Gary Kobinger from the U of Manitoba – he holds a PhD. And citing Ms. Andrea Taylor from Duke University – who also holds a PhD.
Possibly a journalist error, but fits with the narrative of Dr. Cucuz’s article.
Thank you for writing this. I find this can be so hard to address without sounding status-obsessed, but it is important. Some of us get that recognition automatically and some of us don’t. That discrepancy does us and our students harm because it reinforces existing biases about what expertise looks like. I read the original article you referenced, it does not reflect someone with a good knowledge of the current PhD process. To add – I’m not sure using ‘you’re not a Dr if you haven’t delivered a baby’ is a particularly strong argument against a woman who gave birth and earned a doctorate. The sexism in the original piece is not particularly well concealed.