Doctors on Twitter have been speaking out about the pressure they face to be coy about their academic status – and this has provoked yet more calls for them to be modest
I always assumed it was titles that define a woman by her marital status that are one of our biggest indicators of sexism. But look to social media and it is “Dr” that is making waves.
Defending using her academic title for her Twitter account, historian Dr Fern Riddell tweeted: “My title is Dr Fern Riddell, not Ms or Miss Riddell. I have it because I am an expert … I worked hard to earn my authority, and I will not give it up to anyone.” Her replies were promptly filled with men objecting, from checking if she wasn’t imagining her doctorate (“Are you self-certified or do you have accredited qualifications?” asked one) to telling her she was coming across as rude. In solidarity, women with doctorates are now adding Dr to their usernames with the hashtag #immodestwomen.
Mansplaining is firmly rooted in the modern sexism lexicon. But as the #immodestwomen trend shows, the world of gender and qualifications goes beyond this: it is not simply that some men who have no knowledge of a subject assume they do, it is that women who actually do have the expertise are told they must act as if they do not. This starts early and persists. How many of us were taught not to “show off” as children? Research shows girls as young as six years old believe that brilliance is a male trait, while boys are more likely to speak up in class even if they do not know as much about the topic as others – a trait that continues into the workplace. I have a PhD in politics and I never use the title for work except when giving lectures at university. My bankcards say “Ms”. I put “Dr” in my Twitter username because I joined the site too late to get any other combination of my name – and felt awkward about it for months afterwards. I always thought this was because I am against hierarchal titles – why do we need titles anyway? – but I know it is as much a case of embarrassed self-deprecation.
It is easy to dismiss women using Dr as an insignificant issue, but it speaks to a bid to undermine and belittle female expertise and power, and to keep gendered social roles (strangely, women who put “wife” or “mum” in their Twitter bio rarely report strangers chastising them for that). Tellingly, there is now even a parody account created to mock Dr Riddell, as if to warn other women to “know your place”. Be it a PhD or any skill, there’s something quite satisfying about stopping this downplaying of our talents and hard work – to refuse to conform to the inoffensive and subordinate box some men would still put us in. #Immodestwomen are breaking out.