Gender Bias in Salutations

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Language is a powerful medium. It can be used to brighten someone’s day or to hurt them; to encourage an individual or belittle them. At the societal level, patterns of language reinforce norms, customs, and traditions.

One example of language’s power is seen when we speak with or introduce others. Referring to a doctor as Ms. or Mr. could be an honest mistake. Or, it could represent a slight to that individual, such that the person’s credentials are not valued. When people use formal titles for some groups but not others, then the pattern might signal a form of subtle bias.

Dr. Julia Files, of the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, recently worked with colleagues to examine these possibilities in hospital settings. The authors examined how speakers at an academic medical center were introduced. All the speakers held an MD, PhD, or in some cases, both an MD and PhD. Of interest to the research team was whether the speaker’s formal title was used in the introduction, and whether the gender of the introducer or speaker influenced this outcome. Over 300 cases were included in the analysis.

The authors found that women who offered the introductions were about 50 percent more likely than men to use the speaker’s formal title.

One could take these findings as evidence that women are just more formal than men. But that is not exactly the case. When women served as the introducer, they were just as likely to use the formal title when introducing a woman as they were when introducing a man. But for men, that was not the case. Instead, men used formal titles more frequently when introducing other men. In fact, they used formal titles less than half the time when introducing women.

The authors note that “differential formality in speaker introductions may amplify isolation, marginalization, and professional discomfiture expressed by women faculty in academic medicine.”