Monday, January 23, 2006

What title would you like? (Proper name for a woman (Part III))

First off, thanks to all the wonderful comments on previous installments of this series. If you haven’t read them yet, you may want to start there. Ya'll have thought about these issues way more than I.

As far as titles go, there are two issues. The first is gender identification, and the second is marital status identification.

In English (and in every other language I know about), the title for most people immediately conveys your gender. Are you Ms. or Mr.? Do you have ovaries or a penis? Some people, by virtue of their professional status can transcend this titular distinction. They can become Dr. So-and-so and or the Honorable Such-and-such, but for mere mortals, you gender is immediately recognizable via your title.

Does this matter? Do we ever want to disguise our gender? Do adults even use titles?

Academia is pretty informal so most of the time, people are just referred to by their first name (or first and last). Besides, if we were going to be formal, many can transcend gender-based titles by virtue of their doctorate. The only time I’ve run into an issue of what to call someone was what to have my students call me during class. I settled on the informal convention of going by my first name.

But how about outside academia where things might be more formal and fewer people have doctorates. In industry, for example, you might be told to send a prospectus to Mr. So-and-so or Ms. Such-and-such. Immediately, a mental image begins to form of the client based on their gender. And is Mr. going to get better service than Ms.? I’m way outside my field here, but I’m guessing that some of the time, the answer is yes.

How about times when your gender is immediately apparent because you are face-to-face with the person addressing you? Obviously then the first issue becomes a de facto non-issue. The clerk at the grocery store is not going to know your professional status, but most people are pretty easy to binary sort into male/female. So that brings in the marital status question.

As a principle, I don’t think it’s anyone’s business whether a woman is married or not. For a man, it’s never an issue at the grocery store, bank, or post office. He’s always Mr. For women, we’ve got Ms. as the analog. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be the default speech setting for many people.

What really gets to me is the assumption that because I look young and I'm in a college town that I must be Miss. Never mind the wedding ring, and often the husband (also young looking) in tow. At the grocery store, etc. I am always told "Thank you, Miss ScienceWoman, have a nice day." And I can definitely see where if I were unmarried but had a child with me, these same people (often women themselves), would say "Thank you Mrs. ScienceWoman..."

When we are mis-titled should we just let it roll off our backs? On an individual case-by-case, this makes a lot of sense. No point in chewing out a minimum wage worker because she made a unconscious assumption. But if we let these individual slights roll off our backs, how will these women ever learn that what they are saying (and the assumption behind it) is incorrect and offensive? How do we change the system while being more polite than those who mis-title us?

Apologies for the rambling post, but what I really wanted to do was to get you (my readers) talking about these issues. Go for it!


12 comments:

Jocelyn said...

This is becoming kind of a deal with me as I put together wedding invitations. No way in hell am I going to be addressing anyone as "Mr. and Mrs. John Doe". And if we put our names on the invitation, it looks a little odd to have "Ms." and "Mr.", although putting me and "Miss" doesn't fit. (Of course, me with just first and middle and then him with title first middle last is Right Out). So I'm contemplating doing away with Mr. and Ms. titles altogether.

Althogh my future husband does like to joke about us being "Dr. and Mr. MyLastName" when I get my PhD.

No good answer on the everyday correction, though.

yami mcmoots said...

Maybe this is a benefit of having my preferred title printed on my credit card - clerks usually call me Ms. without prompting.

Usually an "Oh, I prefer Ms., please" works well enough. If I know I won't see that clerk again, I don't bother - but some places have a system for writing that sort of thing down, so the next interchangeable functionary will get it right. My roommate's bank put in a little note about his preferred gender when he transitioned, thus earning his undying gratitude. Which seems like the way to go for any business (cough cough, airlines) that wants lasting relationships with its customers.

Dr J. said...

For this one, I´m going to make some comparisons with Germany, just because I find it interesting. Traditionally in Germany (and even occasionally today in Austria) the wife of a Professor (who´s then called Herr Professor X) will call herself Frau Professor X. A nifty way of getting a professor title. Of course, this doesn´t really happen any more and people these days assume I do have my own title and not my husbands. Germans are REALLY big on titles so you do use it ALL THE TIME. It´s often the only way to get people to be polite to you.

Oh another thing is that Germans have completely done away with the diminuitive Fraulein (literally "Little woman" and considered way to politically incorrect) and every woman is now Frau. Which is good. Except that this is translated automatically to Mrs and if you don´t want that and would prefer Ms., they just don´t get it. I spent 20 minutes explaining the differences to a few colleagues and they thought it ridiculous to have so many forms.

One last thing, and then I´m done. German (along with many other languages) differentiates between the sexes in everything. Not only are there politicians and politicianesses, students and studentesses, professors and professoresses, but even inanimate objects have sexes. This I find extreme and think it´s better in English (except for Actors/Actresses). But then German is an old and complex language, should it be "destroyed" for political correctness?

For myself, I´m glad I have the Dr so I no longer have to bother with it. If I married without a Dr title I would have insisted on Ms. and, like the surname thing, kept insisting until it was commonly used.

Anonymous said...

i knew a female prof married to a female prof in switzerland. because a woman takes the man's titles as well as her own, she was technically Frau Prof. Prof. Dr. Dr., which all of us found hysterically funny.

as for titles, well, i'm a young looking woman with a doctorate. most of the time i let 'Ms' slide. but the moment i get the sense that someone is patronizing me, i just say, "if you want to be formal, my title is actually Dr., but you can call me (first name) if you want." i find that a good compromise because it puts someone in their place without having to resort to formality for the rest of the interaction.

Anonymous said...

sorry, typo, i meant female prof married to a male prof!

Adrienne said...

Actually, I'm more concerned about being called "Ma'am." I'm not even 30 people! Don't "Ma'am" me! I've been a 'Ms.' since college; don't know how that happened.

A bigger problem for me is working in the same department as Adrian (who is male) and calling someone who hasn't talked to him and they think I'm him! So, faxes get addressed to Mr. Adrian Smith, when they should be Ms. Adrienne Smith. I'm just glad when they get my gender right.

she falters to rise said...

My first name is often shortened into a genderless nickname. It's funny because so many people whom I meet with for the first time look utterly confused because they assumed through my CV or writing sample or whatever material they had on me that I was a man. I am most definitely not manly in any way, so it's funny to see them scramble when we meet.

I did take my husbands last name. It was a good choice because my maiden name combined with my first name always caused a lot of annoying jokes. Also, I moved way up in the alphabet which is often a plus.

PhD Mom said...

As far as the assumption that when you bring kids you are automatically a Miss, I can report that this is untrue. I guess I look pretty young for my age, but I frequently get called Miss even with both children in tow. It really doesn't bother me. What I get more upset about is when wedding invitations go out and some of my relatives are Dr. so and so and I am Mrs. I feel like I worked hard for my PhD and gosh darn it you better call me Dr!

IrrationalPoint said...

I wrote to senators today and noticed that the drop-down menus on Reid's email form is a bit rubbish. There's all the usual titles, and then "Mr and Mrs" and "Dr and Mrs". So I did some research. Some senators have "Dr and Mr" but I couldn't find any that have "Dr and Dr"...

Think I should write again and point that out to them...

--IrrationalPoint

Anonymous said...

Interesting posts.
My own version of this is being persistently called Mrs. and listening to my husband (also a PhD scientist) being referred to as Dr. simply because, in the deep South, it is presumed that I have no terminal degree and no job. Even my MOTHER IN LAW addresses xmas cards to Dr. and Mrs. and SHE ATTENDED MY DEFENSE!
In 10 years, I have yet to correct anyone about this stupid assumption, and my husband wonders why. I guess I feel silly correcting people (for what? if they are that stupid could they really care?) but I feel sillier for how much this bothers me. I cannot find a solution with which I am comfortable all the time. I often feel that if I DID correct someone "Actually, Mrs. xxx is my mother-in-law...I am DR. xxxx" that I then need to do some sort of trick, like juggle or do a back flip to drive home my point that I have, once again, been misclassified as an ordinary woman, and, lo, I am NOT!
As a knee jerk reaction, I automatically assume that a woman is "Dr" unless told otherwise. I would hate to impose the biases I experience on another woman. Is it a gender issue, a regional issue, etc? I don't know.

Rose Connors said...

I like this line of discussion. I thought long and hard about the last name thing before I got married. I seriously considered taking my husband's last name as my middle name and keeping my own last name for a while. In the end the old fashioned side of me won out and I took his last name, keeping my own middle name and forsaking my last name (which has always been hard for people to hear and spell anyway)completely. I like my new last name better, too.

As for the Ms./Mrs. (I'm not a Dr.) question, I prefer Ms. and refuse to address anything to Mr. and Mrs. Manvorname Mansurname, which baffles my husband completely because it isn't Emily Post.

Rose

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