Back in ancient times shortly after vet school graduation, I sat to dinner with a recently minted MD and we commiserated about people giving us a hard time about our ages.
“I grew a beard,” he said. “It helps.”
That option was out for me, so I cut my hair into an unflattering soccer mom ‘do (it was the early 2000s. We did horrible things back then), dyed it mousy brown, and added glasses in an attempt to make myself appear older and wiser. I don’t really know if it helped. Despite all these efforts and the lab coat with “Dr. Vogelsang” embroidered on it, I would constantly have clients ask me when the doctor was coming in the room. As the years passed and I clearly became old enough to be a doctor, the question persisted. I began to wonder if my age wasn’t the problem.
I once worked for two doctors, a man and a woman who were friends and business partners. He always introduced himself by his first name: “Hi, I’m Peter Foster.” Clients loved it, and afterwards continued to call him Dr. Foster. She did as well: “Hi, I’m Amy Sterling.” It was 50/50 at best whether or not clients called her Amy or Dr. Sterling after that. They usually called her Amy when they were about to complain about something or to see if she would run something by Dr. Foster despite the fact that she was more experienced and essentially his boss.
I guess I am old fashioned in that I prefer people to use proper titles, within context. When I go to my own doctor’s office, I refer to them by their title; it’s about respect, right? In a social context I would use their first name. It’s easier to let go of that need when it doesn’t have an impact on whether or not clients treat your recommendations with the weight your degree gives them, but from my own observations, the clients who want to call me Jessica (or god forbid shorten it to Jess, a fireable offense in my opinion) are also the ones who minimize my expertise.
You’d think that as I got older, this would bother me less. The opposite is true. For a long time I would keep my discomfort to myself, because who wants to be perceived as overly sensitive? Or God forbid, shrill? Maybe it was my fault for not seeming confident enough. Maybe I was being too sensitive. So for years, when people would ask for my first name after I specifically left it out of my introduction, I’d just smile and give it before confirming yes, Dr. Foster thought my recommendations were a good idea.
Most professional women I know have gone through the same internal debate wondering if this was all in our heads. A recent paper in the Journal of Women’s Health showed that when doctors introduced other doctors in a grand rounds environment, women were more likely to use a professional title. Men were less likely to use the title of doctor overall, and even less likely when it was a woman they were introducing. To summarize how often people were introduced using their professional title:
- Woman introducing woman: 98%
- Man introducing man: 72%
- Woman introducing man: 95%
- Man introducing woman: 49%
It’s hard to discuss these things because it always seems to segue into a “here we go again hating on men” thing. It’s not true. I love men, promise. I married one and I work with one and I admire lots of them. I have been supported and championed by men who want to do the right thing and I am so grateful for that. Are we clear on this? OK, good. The good men I know don’t shy away from listening to me when I share my experiences. When we’re too scared to share our reality because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we all lose. I don’t know why this shakes out the way it does, but there’s the numbers so at least we can all breathe a sigh of relief that we aren’t making it all up in our heads.
The biggest takeaway from this study, at least for me, is that women seem to care more about professional titles in general, regardless of whom they are addressing. Perhaps this is because for many of us, we rely on it to reinforce our expertise, or we sense when it is being left out as a conscious or subconscious means to minimize us. Perhaps men don’t care as much because they don’t need that title as much? I don’t know. Maybe some day we will understand more.
For now, I’m going to continue to be That Person and love other people who support me in this crusade. I once overheard one of the greatest technicians and friends in existence, my friend Amber, having this conversation on the phone: “Jessica? Who’s that? We don’t have a Jessica here….Oh, you mean DOCTOR VOGELSANG? I’ll take a message.” Did I mention she was the greatest? Because she is. She has three sons and a daughter now, and I am sure they are also going to be the greatest.
To all the strong and wonderful women doctors I know: It’s OK to want that title, and to correct someone when it is left out. We earned it. Don’t be afraid to hold it close, and be generous with its use with our colleagues. It does mean something. To all the strong and wonderful male doctors I know: Thanks for calling me Doc. I promise to do the same for you.
When she’s not busy watching debates and reading fact check sites, Editorial Director Jessica Vogelsang is a San Diego veterinarian with Paws into Grace and the creator of the popular website pawcurious.com. Her writing is regularly featured on outlets such as dvm360, Vetstreet, and petmd. Her debut memoir All Dogs Go to Kevin is available in bookstores, online, and as an ebook from all major book retailers. For more information about the book and Dr. Vogelsang, visit drjessicavogelsang.com.