The Duck of Minerva

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An Academic Woman’s Rant of the Week: Professor vs. Teacher and Dr. vs. Mrs.

April 9, 2014

Like any good protestant preacher, I’ve decided to start a multi-week series where we can examine a topic in depth from multiple angles.[1]  My chosen topic: women in academia.  This is a topic that has been written on extensively in peer-reviewed articles and on the blogosphere (see The Monkey Cage’s wonderful discussion for a recent summary).  However, to my knowledge, most of those writing on the topic have been senior: the perspective of a woman “in the trenches” (ie junior) has been somewhat missing in the discussion.  I want to add my two-cents to the discussion and I’ve purposely decided to make the tone of this discussion somewhat light.  Yet, make no mistake, I’m very aware that there are some very nasty, horrible, and life-altering components to this topic.  Maybe one day I’ll talk about those aspects as well.

Anywho –  with an eye towards making the tone somewhat light, I’ve decided to title this series “An Academic Woman’s Rant of the Week” – this is a nod to Jo Dee Messina’s song “A Woman’s Rant,” which I love. My first rant:  academic titles and gendered (mis)perceptions.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise but women in academia are likely to be perceived as having a lower title than their male counterparts.  As Miller and Chamberlin (2000) point out in their study of college students:

“students misattribute in an upward direction the level of education actually attained by male graduate student instructors, while they misattribute in a downward direction the level of formal education attained by women, even when the female faculty member is a full professor. The misattributions are linked to the imputed statuses “teacher” for women, and “professor” for men, regardless of the actual positions held or the credentials earned by faculty members and graduate student instructors” (283).

I’ve seen this trend play out in my own career and dealings with students.  Now, I’m ok with students calling me by my first name but I’m also very happy to have a Ph.D and I still get a kick out of a student calling me “Dr. Murdie.”  However, I routinely receive emails that must be meant for my mother-in-law – they are addressed to “Mrs. Murdie.”  Not cool.  At first, I ignored the “Mrs” in emails but I’m starting to actually address the mistaken title in my response to students.   I’ve always had nice responses from students when I take them to task for it – the information could be useful for them later in life.

I’ve also seen this in dealings with my non-academic neighbors in Kansas and Missouri: I had a very nice retired friend try to tell me I was a “professor’s assistant” instead of an “assistant professor.”  It took some time to correct that misperception.  Even in my own dealings with my family, I’ve had lots of relatives refer to me as a “teacher at the University of Missouri” instead of a “professor at the University of Missouri.” This might seem like nit-picky semantics but I really think that this “teacher” versus “professor” misperception is part-and-parcel to some of the larger problems concerning women in academia.  Nothing is wrong with being a teacher[2]; however, I’m not a university teacher.  I’m a university professor.  With a PhD.  And, I shouldn’t have to assume that others don’t know that simply because I’m a woman.

And, that’s my rant of the week.  Next up: self-citation and self-promotion.

[1] I think this is a strategy used by preachers to avoid having to come up with new topics every Sunday.  Typically, the strategy is employed during football season.

[2] My significant other is actually a teacher.  And, a damn good one.

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Amanda Murdie is Professor & Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations in the Department of International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. She is the author of Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs (Stanford, 2014). Her main research interests include non-state actors, and human rights and human security.

When not blogging, Amanda enjoys hanging out with her two pre-teen daughters (as long as she can keep them away from their cell phones) and her fabulous significant other.