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Editorial
New Study Shows Shocking Gender Bias In The Way Men Address Women Doctors
Adobe Stock / Minerva Studio
Liv McConnell
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Are women medical doctors and academics more likely to have their professional title ignored than their male counterparts?

A fascinating new study published by the “Journal of Women's Health” and expounded upon by NPR Monday (May 22) has found the answer is yes.

Conducted by Dr. Julia A. Files and several colleagues, the study honed in on Internal Medicine Grand Rounds — lecture events commonly held at medical schools across the country — to illustrate their hypothesis. Watching footage of two past IMGRs in Arizona and Minnesota, Files and Co. analyzed more than 300 speaker introductions to see whether the speaker’s formal title — like Dr., Professor, MD, and PhD — was used, and whether gender had any correlation to title usage.

Their findings were pretty conclusive. When a female doctor was introducing another doctor, she included the person’s title in nearly every case: 95 percent of the time if the doctor was male, 97.8 percent of the time if the doctor was also female. But when male doctors were introducing speakers, a marked disparity emerges. Files and Co. found that male doctors included titles in 110 of 152 cases (72.4 percent) if the speaker they were introducing was also male. Meanwhile, female doctors were only introduced by their title in 31 of 63 cases, or less than half of the time.

The differences in title treatment continued throughout speakers’ presentations, too. Whereas women doctors acting as panel moderators largely continued to use formal titles when addressing speakers following the initial introduction, male doctors reverted to more informal forms of address — and yet, a gender gap persisted. According to the study, “Despite multiple opportunities to acknowledge the speakers' credentials, the title of Dr. was withheld by male introducers from 41.3% of female speakers compared with only 24.3% of male speakers” following the introduction.

This data backs up what has already anecdotally been proven to be true a number of times — that the educational and professional achievements of women tend to be held in lesser regard than those of men. It’s a form of unconscious bias that can be hard to stick concrete data to, thus making Files and Co.’s findings all the more illuminating.

In her exploration of the study, NPR writer Tania Lombrozo reflected on how she’d seen this same bias reflected in her own experience as a professor.

“I made a point of introducing myself as ‘Professor Lombrozo,’ and I signed emails to students the same way — especially those addressed to Miss/Ms./Mrs. Lombrozo or those that simply used my first name,” she wrote. “Ten years later... I still receive plenty of email directed to the imaginary Miss/Ms./Mrs. Lombrozo, who apparently teaches my courses.”

The study does give us cause to pause in the way we approach addressing women doctors, be they medical or academic, going forward. Because, as Files wrote in her study’s introduction, bias as a whole “may be reinforced by gender-subordinating language or differential use of formality in forms of address,” and professional titles can influence the “perceived expertise and authority” of women in these fields.

 

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