Why Are Women Called Every Name Except the One They Earn?

Dismissiveness and misogyny are still alive in 2020.

Earlier this week, when a man with a BA degree published a piece in the Wall Street Journal calling Dr. Jill Biden “kiddo” and “fraudulent,” saying that using the title “Dr.” as a non-MD doc was “a touch comic,” the internet didn’t find it so funny. Even Merriam-Webster clapped back: “The word doctor comes from the Latin word teacher.” You know you’re having a day when you get roasted by the dictionary.

Another article has called Dr. Biden’s dissertation “trash,” asserting that anyone using their non-medical doctorate title is “smarting from an inferiority complex.” These articles are infused with all the markers of patriarchal, racist, classist, sexist, ableist, heterosexist systems that jump up and down when they are not the ones determining who is allowed to be seen and who is not.

This week, I’ve watched dear friends and colleagues post about the hard work and sacrifice required in earning a doctorate, frustrated but not surprised by the all-too-familiar assertions of the WSJ article that we are not “real.”

The percentage of women worldwide who earn doctorates hovers at about 1 percent. No, we are not resuscitating someone on a plane or performing surgery, but we are not “kiddos” pretending to be important. We are important. There wouldn’t be any MDs without teachers. The irony is, most of us are very unlikely to tout our titles, because we know it’s going to cause unwanted reactions.

While earning my doctorate, every second of my day was accounted for. If I found a way to make it to the beach, or my hairdresser, or the doctor for That Ailment I’d been ignoring for a solid two years, my work was always in my lap. At soccer practices, piano lessons and in orthodontist waiting rooms there was no time to flip through the Hollywood gossip, lest I lose one minute of reading meta-analyses or tapping away at my dissertation. During one appointment, the orthodontist noticed my intensity. He asked what I was working on, so I told him. His face contorted and body shook as he tried to suppress uncontrollable laughter. He was acting like I told him I was on the way to the moon with Oprah (I wish!). Note: this did not happen in the 1950s.

On another occasion, I was greeted by a “real doctor,” the MD who was about to perform my Lasik Eye Surgery. He abruptly walked in, and I figured he’d make some proverbial small talk or ask about my eyes (the reason I was there and paying a good $3,000 or so).

“Real” Doctor: What do you do?

Me: I teach. (I NEVER lead with words like professor, university, or my title, knowing this can be very triggering.)

Real Doctor: What do you teach?

Me: Behavioral Science.

“Real” Doctor: “You’re a professor”? (Stares me up and down. Maybe my body type or what I’m wearing would be an indicator of my cerebral capacities. He proceeds in a very “kiddo” tone…) “Well, let me take your glasses, you won’t have these anymore to make you look professorial…”

Maybe I just wasn’t having luck around these “real doctors,” so perhaps the academic environment would be a little less of a landmine.

Early in my career, there was an academic conference that I dreamed of attending. Put on by the elites, it was headlined by the best practitioners in brain science and education. I sat wide-eyed, taking copious notes, and then had the wild idea that maybe I would eventually make it to the stage.

I earned my clinical license, entered into academia, earned a doctorate, wrote, published, and gave hundreds of talks while working and raising my daughter and son. Every stitch of free time was spent studying, reading, writing, speaking, and drinking as many green smoothies my body could handle to keep me from collapsing. It wasn’t just getting into the conference or proving the orthodontist wrong. I wanted to be best equipped to use my resources for the greater good. This is not to say that when the conference invite reached my inbox, I did not immediately get up and break into celebratory dance.

The moment arrived; most of my butterflies were excitement. There’s always that back-of-mind imposter syndrome kiddo stuff chirping, but the combination of many hours of hard work and all the yoga I’d been doing was on my side. As I began, I noticed the eyes of one of the most prominent scientists at the conference fixed on me. At first I was flattered, but then remembered he was scheduled to speak immediately following my talk in the same room.

For the next hour, I shared perspectives from a grounded theory study I’d conducted that examined intersections of resilience and identity, and shared applications to the crowd of clinicians, educators, and leaders, classic NPR types who salivated over brain science and social impact.

Please note: It should not be even 0.01 percent relevant to indicate my wardrobe choice at this moment. But since great sport is made discussing a woman’s clothing choices, I will indulge anyone who will naturally want to ask that question a few lines from now. So here it is: plain, black turtleneck knee-length dress paired with houndstooth blazer, minimal make-up. (Fun fact: I own two of the exact same dress to avoid what happens below). You’re welcome.

(Please note again: This is not to say that anyone who chooses to wear whatever suits them should not do their thing.)

After the Q&A wrapped up, the prominent scientist approached me. I held my breath. He was “amazed” at the caliber of my work, asked for my handle, and shook my hand vigorously. I was elated.

A little later, I checked Twitter. There was a shout out! It seemed to mean well, but he had called me the “Diva of the conference”. I didn’t see any similar adjectives being used for my male counterparts: “brilliant,” yes; “fascinating,” check; “stellar thought leader,” more than once; but no “divo.” Hmm. Maybe I needed my professorial glasses.

I cannot say that I was shocked or even indignant. I might have even sent a light-hearted tweet back. I have this really useful skill (some would call it a defense mechanism) of translating things to humor fairly quickly. That works out well, because there is a lot of misogynistic material to convert. Truly “diva” wasn’t a huge deal, I wouldn’t even call it a microaggression. Maybe a chauvinistic misdemeanor, or a back-handed compliment. Either way, I’ve been called, and treated, worse. My male friends and colleagues say that they’ve never been called a divo or had their dissertations trashed publicly or told that they earned their title just to impress their postal deliverer.

After one of my appearances on NPR, the comments on the feed from male listeners were “it was really rare and refreshing for a woman to be so intelligent.” It was followed by “yes, truly a rare breed”. Yay for me, the token woman who is actually smart. Glory be.

Instead of calling us by the titles we’ve earned, we are called everything else: full of herself, bossy, too much, an anomaly, kiddo, sweetheart, or wanna-be. We are told we are being comical, without any recognition that what they are doing is the most ironic blend of comedy and tragedy. Might this be a classic case of projection?

One guy told me I was bragging when I said I wrote a book. Um… he asked what I did. I stated a fact. Women do not have inferiority complexes, we have parity complexes. We don’t need red carpets, pomp and circumstance, but don’t want to be called kiddos or divas, or insecure or braggarts, regardless of which degree we may or may not have. The articles trashing Dr. Jill Biden said her work is “not an addition to the sum total of human knowledge.” The authors of these articles are the ones detracting from it.

This whole debate might seem to pale in comparison to the escalating problems we face, but ultimately those who cannot treat women with a basic level of respect and reverence for their contributions to the world are the ones making fools of themselves.

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