For the Sound of Gender Bias, Check My Phone Mail

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Credit: Japanexperterna.se on Flickr, under Creative Commons

(WOMENSENEWS)– That’s what , argued in Time magazine recently. responded by pointing out the absurdity of that argument, noting that discussions of male candidates’ testosterone levels are appropriately absent from the political commentary.

This is yet another example of the way gender bias continues to flourish. than men for the same work, their and even .

While I’m not running for president, I experience this gender bias frequently as a professional. I am a full professor with a Ph.D., with decades of experience, and yet I cannot count the number of times a student whom I’ve never met (perhaps an undergraduate interested in my program) writes "Hello Sheri" in an email or calls me "Sheri" in a voicemail. Sometimes they refer to me as Ms. Bauman, although to get my contact information they would have used the university directory, and it is clear that I am Dr. Bauman. I have asked my male colleagues how they are typically addressed, and it’s consistently by their titles.

An experimental study conducted in 1981 found that female professors were addressed by their first name more often than males, and that female students were more likely to do this. In that study, this behavior was more common when the female professor was 26-33 years old. I am far beyond that age range. That study is more than 30 years old, and yet I’m not alone in noticing this pattern. An Australian professor wrote about this last year. And scholars, , have detected this same pattern. And it’s worse for women of color on faculties. Sure, this could be an example of youthful bad manners or a reflection of the increasing informality of many cultural practices, but I think it’s about gender.

Just to be clear, I am not a stickler for hierarchy. I invite my graduate students to use my first name, and I typically do this in the first class they take with me or at our first meeting. Interestingly, many continue to call me Dr. Bauman. But I’m talking here about students who have never met me, and who are seeking me out for information or assistance.

Partners With a Title Gap

For several years, I had a private practice as a psychologist. My colleague was also a psychologist. When we went to meetings, I would introduce myself as Dr. Sheri Bauman and he would use the title as well. We frequently observed that in meetings with public officials or representatives of agencies, it quickly became, Dr. X and Sheri. (My male colleague thought perhaps this was because I was more approachable. I disagreed).

Lest you think this might be about age, let me assure you that I am not a young woman. And Dr. X and I are very close in age. We even dressed alike; in pants suits.

A woman who worked for an agency whose clients we treated did this so frequently, and in front of clients, that I felt compelled to call her attention to what she was doing. She insisted I was mistaken and claimed that as a woman, she would never treat another woman that way. At our next meeting, however, she referred to my colleague as "Dr." in one breath, and me as "Sheri" in the next. I mentioned this at the end of the meeting, but she insisted I was imagining things. So at the next meeting, the "Dr." and I pointed it out to her as it happened. She was shocked to realize she too engaged in this behavior.

To be sure, many aspects of life have become more informal. In many workplaces, even beyond Apple or Google, workers wear jeans and T-shirts. So do some professors. But although we no longer wear academic regalia to class, most of my colleagues dress in business or business casual attire when teaching or interacting with students and other professionals. We do not dress like our students.

And, although I am not proud of it, I find myself feeling less inclined to go out of my way or to be overly friendly to those unknown contacts who call me at my university phone (where my voicemail greeting identifies me as Dr. Sheri Bauman) and use my first name although they have never met me.

What might account for these experiences? It seems clear that and most likely unconscious explanation. I doubt that it is intentional disrespect.

I try to be subtle by signing email responses from these unknown students "Dr. Bauman," or when returning a phone call, saying, "Hello, it’s Dr. Bauman." It works sometimes. That may change the behavior of that individual, but the pattern has not changed. And it probably won’t, not until our society accords women the same level of respect as males enjoy.

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