Updated: Dec 14, 2020
As a senior-level administrator for a large school district, I was one of the dignitaries recognized at a commencement ceremony over a year ago. In a football stadium filled with over 1,000 graduates and their families, a fellow administrator thanked the school leaders present for the event. When it came time to express gratitude to the two assistant superintendents (me and my male counterpart), my male colleague was referred to as “Doctor,” while I was recognized as simply “Jenna Rufo." I silently fumed. Like my co-assistant superintendent, I am a Doctor of Education. The title was dropped for me but not for him.
I’m unsure if anyone else caught the slight, but I certainly did. It was actually the second time in only a matter of weeks that I was referred to as just “Jenna” while my male colleagues were addressed as “Doctors.” I didn’t correct anyone.
Why did I leave this alone rather than say something? I am not typically one who is afraid to speak her mind. In fact, when I recapped a story to my husband once and exclaimed that, “I will not be a shrinking violet!” he laughed. “Shrinking violet? You?” he replied jokingly, “You’re more like that vine that grows all over everything.”
So what was holding me back from claiming a title that I rightfully earned? A title that I earned by attending classes every Thursday night for four years. A title that I earned by writing a 150-page mixed-methods dissertation. A title that I earned while simultaneously working as a full-time public school district administrator. A title that I earned while parenting a young child and giving birth to a second.
The answer to what was holding me back became evident today in Joseph Epstein’s WSJ op-ed piece arguing that Dr. Jill Biden drop her “fraudulent” and “comical” title as a Doctor of Education. While the article showed a blatant disrespect for the education profession in general, it was particularly condescending to women.
“Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo...Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill,” Epstein instructed, “and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.”
To paraphrase the mockery: How cute you have your doctorate. Get over yourself. Now, go play the role you’re supposed to assume - wallpaper for your husband’s presidency.
Epstein’s comments are not simply dismissive of Dr. Biden’s advanced degree and education. They reduce her identity to that of a complement to her husband. Epstein implies that Dr. Biden need only exist now in the context of her relationship to the President-Elect. Her achievements are inconsequential.
Women have long been expected to be defined by family first, and then career. The deleterious effects of this belief are well-documented. Even in fields dominated by women, few females hold roles in the upper ranks. In K-12 education, 72% of teachers are women but they comprise less than 15% of superintendents.
Let’s return to my original question: Why did I not demand to be addressed with my proper title? The answer is quite simple. If I were a man, the action would command respect, but as a woman, it would be viewed as pretentious or uptight or aggressive. It felt easier to swallow my pride and move on than to hear the choruses of, “it’s not a big deal,” or “no one meant to offend you,” or “lighten up.” Because even if this wasn’t said to my face, it would surely be whispered behind my back.
Yet, upon further reflection, perhaps the bigger question is not, “Why didn’t I demand the respect to which I was entitled?” but rather, “Why do I need to demand it?” If my male colleague is referred to as “Doctor,” and I too am a doctor, CALL ME DOCTOR.
I shouldn’t need to prove that I deserve the same courtesy as my male colleagues when I earned it the same as them. Nor should I alone have to speak up and tell someone to call me “doctor” when everyone at the table knows well that I am.
This isn’t all on women to fix. When men in the workplace see women being passed over, or disrespected, or talked down to, they must advocate for their female colleagues as well. Because a woman who doesn't claim what she has rightfully earned has not given others permission to take it. More likely, she is tired from having to stake her claim over...and over...and over again.
Dr. Biden earned her degree. So did I. A woman who asks...no, who expects to be called “Doctor,” is not haughty or pretentious or snobby. She is owning her worth.
I am not “Ms.”
I am not “Mrs.”
I am not just “Jenna.”
Call me “Doctor.” I’ve been called worse.