Just Call Me ‘Doctor’
BY JENNA MANCINI RUFO
/School Administrator, June 2021
SEVERAL YEARS AGO,
I sat in a football stadium filled with more than 1,000 high school graduates and their families at a graduation ceremony. When it came time to recognize the dignitaries, a fellow administrator thanked the school district’s assistant superintendents (me and my male counterpart). In his speech, my colleague was addressed as “Doctor,” while I was recognized as simply “Jenna Rufo.”
I silently fumed. Like my counterpart, I am a doctor of education. This was the second time in only a matter of weeks that I was just called “Jenna” while my male colleagues were addressed as “doctors.” I didn’t correct anyone. Why did I leave this alone rather than say something?
The inequitable consideration of women’s credentials has received heightened attention recently. Since the publication of Wall Street Journal columnist Joseph Epstein’s op-ed piece, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not If You Need an M.D.,” women’s titles have become a hot topic. In his column, Epstein argued that Dr. Jill Biden drop her “fraudulent” and “comical” title as a doctor of education.
Epstein instructed: “Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo. ... Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.”
His comments not only are dismissive of an advanced degree and education, but they also reduce her identity to that of a complement to her husband. Epstein implies Biden need only exist in the context of her relationship to the president. Her achievements are inconsequential.
Women long have been expected to be defined by family first and then career. The deleterious effects of this belief are well-documented. Even in fields dominated by women, few females hold senior positions. In K-12 education, 72 percent of teachers are women, but they comprise only one-fourth of all superintendencies nationwide.
Returning to my original question — Why did I not demand to be addressed with my proper title? — the answer is simple. If I were a man, the action would command respect, but as a woman, it would be viewed as pretentious or uptight or aggressive. It felt easier to swallow my pride than to hear the choruses of “it’s not a big deal” or “no one meant to offend you” or “lighten up.” Because even if these weren’t said to my face, they certainly would be whispered behind my back.
Perhaps the bigger question then is not “Why didn’t I demand respect?” but rather “Why do I need to demand it?” If my male col-league is referred to as “Doctor,” and I too am a Doctor, then call me “Doctor.”
I originally published this argument on my blog several months ago, not long after Epstein’s column. Since then, numerous women have reached out, sharing similar experiences. Some, however, said they wished I stood up for myself or owned partial responsibility for not correcting the affront.
Would speaking up have made for a better, more inspiring story? Maybe. But this is the real story. Unfortunately, it’s a story many professional women have lived, and it’s not all on women to fix. Our male allies must serve as advocates as well. Because a woman who fails to claim what she has rightfully earned has not given others permission to take it. More likely, she is tired of having to stake her claim over and over and over again.
While it may have taken a while to have the courage to say it …
I am not “Ms.”
I am not “Mrs.”
I am not just “Jenna.”
Call me “Doctor.” I’ve been called worse.
JENNA MANCINI RUFO
is a consultant on special education and inclusion in Philadelphia, Pa. Twitter: @JennaMRufo