“It’s actually Dr. Wong. She’s here for the conference too” my husband corrected the hotel clerk, as the two of us were checking in for a recent ophthalmology meeting. The clerk had addressed my husband as “Dr.” and
me as “Mrs.”. Perhaps surprisingly, I was not bothered by it. We had just gotten off a red eye, I was tired, and I’ve been a physician for 18 years, this is obviously not new.
I remember when I was young and filling out a form for my parents to sign for school. The form had titles which I was supposed to circle next to the blanks for their names. There was Mr./Mrs, Dr./Mrs. and even Dr./Dr. but not Mr/Dr.
My father always used to make a point of correcting people when they incorrectly addressed my mother and didn’t use her “Doctor” title or if they mistakenly assumed he was the physician and not her. “She’s smarter than me, she’s the doctor”, he would insist. My mom would shrug it off. In the grand scheme of things, she felt the distinction was unimportant. But, to my father, it was very important to acknowledge my mother’s training and education. And, as a young girl, I saw that and it made me so proud of both of them.
I usually don’t like being called by my professional title outside of a medical setting. Call me Rupa. Or Auntie. Or even Mrs. Wong (though that makes me think of my mother-in-law). However, if my husband is being addressed as Doctor, then I should be too. The difference is the implicit gender bias in addressing one of us as a physician and not both.
Studies have shown that when there is a panel of male and female physicians, the male physicians are often addressed as Dr. and the woman by her first name. Has this happened to you?
This gender bias is not restricted to medicine of course. It’s been shown in other STEM fields, academics and politics. Another study using the IAT (Implicit Association Test) demonstrated that adults and children are more likely to associate brilliance with men than women. If you’ve never taken the IAT, I’ve linked to it in my stories.
These implicit biases must be addressed. We’re all human, and we are all susceptible to these biases. We absorb images in our society all the time. They key is to acknowledge them, recognize what your own biases are, apologize and move forward to overcome them with true actionable strategies.
So, when I heard my husband correct the hotel clerk, it reminded me of my dad. I value being a wife and a mama to my 3 kiddos. But, I also acknowledge that words have power and something as seemingly innocuous as incorrectly addressing a woman doctor can play into the gender disparities in medicine.
And, I value that when I, or my husband, corrects someone (gently and respectfully) that my children see that as well.