Once you get a PhD, you are allowed to call yourself ‘Doctor’ and put ‘Dr’ in front of your name. Some people do so consistently, while others hardly ever do it. Mineke Bosch (a professor of modern history at Groningen University) found that women are less likely than men to use their titles because they tend to be more modest about their achievements. “That’s commonly known.” Philosopher Stine Jensen recently received a large number of reactions when she wrote: “Generally, I don’t use my title. I either don’t think it’s necessary, or it looks like I’m bragging. But then I heard Prof. Mineke Bosch’s rather compelling argument for women doing so, anyway. Show them what you’ve got. Don’t make yourself smaller.”

Inequality in the way academics are addressed

As far as that is concerned, Bosch was not just referring to titles. “I was also referring to the huge inequality in the way men and women are addressed. Women are addressed by their first name only, whereas men are addressed by their surname. I’ve always noticed that, and I dislike it.” For instance, she engendered a debate in the editorial board of the Dutch Biographical Dictionary regarding the fact that gender was only indicated in entries on women. “Men are referred to by their title, while women are referred to as ‘Mrs’ First Name. I wanted to change that but ran into a lot of opposition. It’s quite the complicated operation. People just aren’t used to that yet.”

She remembers her own source of inspiration when she was a student attending Groningen University. “Professor Else Barth, an analytic philosopher, came to the university to teach lectures. She was very aware of language and how it was used. Right away she organised a series of seminars entitled ‘Sexist Paradigm in Philosophy’, which I attended. Initially we all addressed each other very informally and called her ‘Else’, until one day she entered the room and said: ‘We’re done with all of that. From now on, I’ll be ‘Professor Barth’, and you will formally address each other.’ She’d overheard students in the library, talking about the philosopher Ger Harmsen, and they’d sounded very respectful, always calling him ‘Professor Harmsen’. That’s when the penny dropped for her: democratisation is fine, but not if it only affects women.”

Forms of address

She herself would rather not use her title unless absolutely necessary. “I hardly ever use it outside academia. It’s pointless. I’m not having anyone call me ‘Professor’ either, and I sign everything using my first name and surname. But if my students say ‘Hi Mineke’ when they see me or write to me, I do teach them a little lesson on forms of address.”

She says that when lectures and conferences are announced, men are often announced by their title, while women continue to be announced by their first name. “It’s a good example of women being reduced to women, while men are considered the universal category. It’s a long-standing gender pattern.” The solution, she feels, lies in never failing to address the matter. “And it shouldn’t only be women doing so.”

No scientific research has been conducted in the Netherlands on the differences in the ways in which male and female academics are addressed. An American study conducted at American medical schools in 2017 confirmed that women are less likely to be announced by their title, particularly by their male colleagues.

Showing off your title

Talitha Stam was awarded a doctorate in September 2018. “Since then I’ve used my title for work-related matters. For instance, in my e-mail signature and on LinkedIn, where I made a conscious decision to put it in front of my name. I’m not seeing enough women of colour with a Doctor title, neither in the Netherlands nor abroad. Ever since I got my PhD, I’ve received a lot of responses from people of colour, telling me that they think it’s great I have that title and they feel I should flaunt it more.” Initially, she wasn’t sure if she should show off her title. “But if you’ve got it, why make yourself smaller? If people don’t see a particular thing, they’ll think it doesn’t exist.”

She does not use her title on other social media. “Take Facebook, for instance. The conversations I have there are more personal. I don’t think it even says where I work. Whereas when I talk on LinkedIn, it’s generally related to my position or field of expertise.” As far as she is concerned, it’s something people of colour, in particular, should take up. “In my particular generation, you’ll find more female than male PhD students – for instance, at our department. There aren’t many PhD students of colour, though.”

Gratuitous nonsense

Sohail Wahedi was awarded a doctorate in November. Since then he has hardly used his title. “Not in my daily communications. I’ve heard some stories about people who will send Christmas cards to others and sign them Dr So-and-So. That sort of gratuitous nonsense doesn’t do anything for me. I didn’t do a PhD to be able to put my title on postcards. Least of all since my research was paid for by the hard-earned money of tax-payers.”

He does use his title when he writes letters of recommendation for his students, or sometimes when he is applying for an opportunity to present his study results. “And then I’ll only do it on EUR letterhead. I make a point of not doing it in the academic articles I’ve published since being awarded my doctorate, and I don’t do it in my e-mails or on LinkedIn, either. I don’t want to use my title so as to be known as hard-working Doctor So-and-So who knows everything about everything.” He doesn’t think it’s his duty to present himself as a role model, being a PhD graduate from a diverse cultural background. “I’m not the Messiah, nor another latter-day saint. Things that worked for me may not work the same way for others. I simply want to present myself, and hopefully serve as a role model to my fellow human beings because of my skills as an academic rather than because of my cultural or religious background or political affiliations.”

Hard to strike the right balance

For her part, Tina van der Vlies was also awarded a doctorate in November, after which she did edit her e-mail signature. “Other than that, I hardly ever use my title. I don’t use it in private correspondence, and I don’t use it on Facebook or LinkedIn, either.” Her profile on the latter network does mention that she has a PhD. “But I didn’t change my name. If people are interested, my profile will tell them that I have a PhD, and also what I was awarded it for. I do think it would be weird to present myself as ‘Dr Tina van der Vlies’ there. I’d feel I was laying it on too thick if I did. I’d probably think, Tina, don’t exaggerate. At the same time, I wouldn’t actually think that if I saw other people do it, so maybe I’m wrong. I think it’s hard to strike the right balance. You have to be careful not to be the only person not using a title, or to forget it.”

Van der Vlies does use her title in work-related matters. “I’d use it if I were to apply for a job, and I’ll put it on the course syllabus when I’m teaching a course. At the moment I’m busy organising the Historians’ Days, a major history conference that will be held in Rotterdam in August 2021. As far as that’s concerned, it can be easier to use my title every once in a while, to show that I’m well read in a particular subject.”

She says there are plenty of men at EUR who don’t flaunt their titles every opportunity they get. “I wish none of us would use our titles. But that’s not the world we live in, so we should use them where relevant.”