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Women in the Workplace: Asserting Your Earned Academic/Professional Title

With President-elect Joe Biden just weeks away from taking office, and his wife Dr. Jill Biden set to become the nation’s 46th First Lady, critics of the pair are already starting to emerge, fueled in part by one of the most contentious election cycles in U.S. history. A recent WSJ article critical of her using the “doctor” title, written by Joseph Epstein, a man without such a degree, was a misogynistic-fueled post that included calling her “kiddo” and other demeaning terms, as well as criticizing the value of her degree. Dr. Biden, one of the few first ladies who have earned a doctorate (aside from Michelle Obama, JD), has faced a slew of criticism about whether or not she should use her title, and if her degree holds the same weight and importance as a medical degree. Those that share the writer’s opinion claim that Dr. Biden using her title is an unnecessary form of elitism. Epstein also brags about how he was able to teach “without a doctorate,” but fails to acknowledge how his privileged identities as a white cisgender man may have assisted him with being able to get this role.

Epstein and others’ assertions are examples of what women must continually fight for: respect. Even when we have earned it and despite others who are more privileged lacking respect for our contributions and accomplishments. This is also not only relevant but representative of what many women face in the workplace. Having marginalized identities often means that you enter the workplace at a deficit, as bias and in-group favoritism can mean having to prove your worth and value, and assert yourself to gain respect and advance.

As someone with the same degree as Dr. Biden, I understand why it is so important for her to highlight her doctorate while in the White House and beyond, and the importance of her support for women from allies in the workplace. McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace study elucidates that women in the workplace face myriad issues from a lack of opportunity, access to mentors and sponsors, lower pay, difficulties advancing, a lack of representation in leadership and a lack of peer-based, structural or organizational support. According to the U.S. Spencer Stuart Board Index, there are fewer women than men on executive boards and other leadership positions. In instances where women do hold these positions, they must often fight for respect and to be heard. Women, even in leadership roles, must deal with those who doubt their ability, authority and leadership skills, as well as endure similar condescending tones as Epstein’s WSJ article.

This is coupled with the fact that the road to the doctorate (whether a Ph.D., Ed.D., etc.) is a difficult one. Not only must you complete your coursework (a higher level of expectations than undergraduate coursework) and demonstrate a strong knowledge of best practices in your field, but you also have to conduct a large research project, publicly defend it, and have several experts in the field approve it. Some doctoral students also work full-time and/or have families while completing their degrees. This is a long, draining and arduous process, which can take an average of 6 years. After years of work, you finally earn the title of Doctor. This is even more important for women, as well as Black, Latino and marginalized others, and especially women of color whose experiences lie at the intersection of race and gender and may therefore face gendered racism.

Why Does This Matter?

First, women still earn 81 cents for every dollar that men make. For women of color, this is only 67 cents. Yet, women are more likely to pursue advanced degrees.

In fact, while this statistic varies depending on the field and area of study (i.e., women still underrepresented in STEM), overall, there are currently more women with advanced degrees than men. Recent reports have indicated that overall, 53% of those that hold doctorates are women. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for women of color:

  • 66% of Black people that earned doctorates are women
  • 57% of Latinos/Hispanics that earned doctorates are women
  • 56% of Asians/Pacific Islanders that earned doctorates are women
  • 54% of American Indians that earned doctorates are women

Additionally, research suggests that women often pursue additional degrees for myriad reasons, one reason being to advance in their careers and receive higher pay.

Companies are also recognizing the value of post-secondary education as a means for professional development, and supporting their employees when pursuing additional education. For example, of the top five most diverse and inclusive companies from The 2020 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list, four (No. 1: Marriott, No. 2: Hilton, No. 3: Eli Lilly and Company, and No. 4: ADP) offer tuition assistance to support external educational opportunities at postsecondary institutions.

Tips for Supporting Women in the Workplace:

For women in the workplace, do not be afraid to highlight your accomplishments and your title. If you have your doctorate, saying you are a doctor is not pretentious, it is stating a fact. Unfortunately, we often have to prove our worth and assert ourselves as women because others may not do this for us.

For allies, you must support women in the workplace. While some have questioned the value and legitimacy of Dr. Biden’s degree, many have supported her with counter-articles and social media posts. Here are some tips for doing so:

  • Ensure that when a woman speaks, you listen and acknowledge what she says, or also repeat and highlight it if others dismiss it.
  • If a woman who has earned a doctorate calls herself a doctor, please respect this and call her the same. For white women allies, do the same for women of color.
  • While people should be valued regardless of their educational attainment, recognize that saying doctor is not a form of pretentiousness. It is stating a fact that this person earned a doctorate.
  • Highlight all women’s voices and contributions.

Finally, as Karyn Twaronite, EY’s global diversity and inclusiveness officer shared during DiversityInc’s 2020 Women of Color and Allies event, this kind of support among women is crucial for mutual advocacy — women must support one another. She shared that being an ally means acknowledging others’ experiences and struggles, as well as their value. This is even more important when they are not in the room, when introducing them to new clients, media and publications. Twartonite emphasized the importance of “credentialing” or “making their CV come to life” by sharing titles and their accomplishments and skills, particularly for women and women of color. As such, I stand with Dr. Biden.


Dr. Brittany Robertson joined DiversityInc as a Research Analyst in December 2020. She plays a significant role in DiversityInc’s annual Women of Color and Allies event and assists with various projects. Dr. Robertson received her doctorate in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania. She also has an extensive career as a higher education professional, working in the areas of advising, admissions, enrollment and recruitment. Dr. Robertson’s research focus is on women of color and their experiences in the workplace.

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