Two female doctors noticed a pattern when observing speakers at medical conferences — male doctors were generally introduced formally with the title “Doctor,” while female doctors were often introduced only by their first names, according to the Washington Post.
Curious to see how widespread this gender differentiation was, Dr. Julia Files and Dr. Anita Mayer, both Mayo Clinic physicians, decided to conduct a study of speaker introductions at medical conferences and recently published their findings in the Journal of Women’s Health. Their study determined that gender bias in introductions is not only real, it’s very common.
At the heart of the issue, the researchers observe, isn’t the form of the address but the difference in how male and female doctors are treated. As Dr. Sharonne Hayes, a third contributor to the study, explains: “It’s the inequity and the context. I don’t mind being called ‘Sharonne’ — it’s my name! — but if all the men are being called ‘Doctor Jones’ and all the women by only their first names, that’s offensive. While I have to assume it’s inadvertent, the effect is to put me in my place as ‘less than.'”
Their study of 300 introductions at medical conferences found that male introducers used professional titles 49 percent of the time with female doctors, but 72 percent of the time with men. Female introducers were more likely to use titles in general, but the result was still highly skewed by gender: titles were used 96 percent of the time with male doctors but only 66 percent of the time with female ones.
Dr. Anupam Jena, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, observed that male introducers may use first names because they felt “the work done by female colleagues is somehow different than the work done by male colleagues. Subconsciously they are not equating the stature of female speakers to be the same as male speakers.” Dr. Kim Templeton, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Kansas, agrees, noting that the introducers “just assume, somehow, that [women] don’t warrant the same respect as the men do.”
While introductions may only have a small direct effect on female doctors, Jena says that “the general attitude within medicine that drives these differences is probably what’s most important,” since such gender bias, conscious or unconscious, can significantly impact areas such as hiring, faculty rank, and salary.
As a result of the study, the Mayo Clinic has issued new guidelines stipulating that “doctor” is to be used on first introduction, although first names or nicknames can be used afterwards if appropriate, and the researchers hope other medical groups will follow suit. “Language is very powerful… the words we use can shape how people feel about themselves and others, how they interact and how they make decisions about the distribution of rights and resources,” says Dr. Rachel Allison, an assistant professor of sociology who studies gender equity. “The question for me is not what women can do to navigate the landscape, although that is an important one, but what we can all do to change it.”
For two wonderful picture books celebrating female doctors, we recommend Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell for ages 4 to 8 and The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath for ages 5 to 9.
There is also an excellent book about 21 pioneering women in medicine, Bold Women of Medicine, for ages 12 and up. For books to show kids that science and medicine is for everyone regardless of gender, check out our blog post, “60 Books to Inspire Science-Loving Mighty Girls.”
For books about both real-life and fictional girls and women confronting gender discrimination and sexism in a multitude of forms, visit our “Gender Discrimination” section.