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I work as a research assistant for a woman who has a Ph.D., when we first met for my interview she introduced herself as (First Name) and since then I have always referred to her as (First Name) in emails. She has never corrected me or asked that I called her "Dr. (Last Name)" in the three months I have worked for her.

Recently another professor who has a Ph.D. came up in an email who happens to be male and I referred to him as "Dr. (Last Name)" because he has never introduced himself using his first name. Several days later I received an email from my boss asking me why I called him "Dr. (Last Name)" and then she suggested I "look into research on gender bias and the meaning of Dr". She has not directly said I am being biased and maybe I am misconstruing her words.

How should I respond to this? I don't want her to think I am calling her by her first name because she is a woman, but I also don't want to come off as standoffish or confrontational about it.

Edit: I know it is generally advised to wait 24 hours before accepting an answer, but I wanted to make sure I responded to her before the end of the day. I will accept the answer I used as a framework for my response (apology included).

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    is it in academic setting? What is the field? – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Oct 22 at 18:13
  • @Oct18isdayofsilenceonSE It is an academic setting. She works as an Economist, but I am a Geographic Information Scientist. – AResearchAssistant Oct 22 at 18:20
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    @sf02 It was my impression that it is permissible to address someone as how they introduce themselves, this is why I included the first paragraph. I think if this were the issue she would have told me so sooner. I may be wrong of course. – AResearchAssistant Oct 22 at 19:02
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    When you say "I have always referred to her as (First Name) in emails", do you mean emails to her, or to others as well? I mean, if you wrote an email "Hi Jane, here's the account of my conversation with Dr X", and put Dr. X in the CC list of your email, this might look a bit disrespectful. – IMil Oct 23 at 3:01
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How should I respond to this?

You should tell her that you referred to the male doctor the way you did because he has never introduced himself using his first name.

You should tell her that you meant absolutely no gender bias at all, but if she would prefer, you would be glad to refer to her as Doctor as well rather than using her first name. Some (in comments) suggest that an apology is in order.

Then you should follow through on however she would prefer to be addressed.

  • @UnhandledExcepSean Not "merited". But advised. It does not cost anything and makes clear that what came across as slight was unintentional. – Captain Emacs Oct 22 at 18:53
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    An apology might be cultural. In Britain, we would likely apologize that someone's feeling were hurt, but not as an admission of guilt. Americans, in my experience, tend not to apologize unless they made a mistake. – David Oct 23 at 2:58
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    My unprofessional opinion is that this might be someone you should avoid working with if possible. If it is an ego thing, then this won't be the last incident, and it's hard to read as a legitimate case of gender bias. – Charles Hudgins Oct 23 at 2:58
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    Wish I could upvote this more than once. Everyone has things that hit their "hot buttons" and it is best to handle them in a profession way. This answer both shows the boss that OP is sensitive to gender issues and respects them, and at the same time makes it clear that the bias does not come from OP. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Oct 23 at 14:54
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    @David it also may have legal implications depending on the country cmpa-acpm.ca/en/advice-publications/browse-articles/2008/… – morbo Oct 24 at 13:57
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Ask your boss, ideally face-to-face, what she meant by her remark. As long as the accusation is implied, it isn't possible to answer to it. Make sure it doesn't appear confrontational, but you show that you are genuinely interested in learning what you did wrong. It is very likely that there is another issue.

But if it is indeed the situation your described, your boss took offense in, explain your side of the story and then offer what you can do differently. You can offer to always call a PhD a doctor, to call everyone by their first name.

Your boss might or might not agree with your approach and paddle back. Either way, as she is your boss, you better do what she prefers.

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You didn't state either way whether this happened or not, but I would add to the other answers that even if you call her by her first name when speaking to her privately, you should use her title when referring to her in the third person, and when addressing her directly in other group settings when you are not speaking one-on-one. An email is an example of the latter.

In other words, most people would find it inappropriate to say something like, "That's a good idea Dr. Jones. Alice, what do you think?" in an email, even if saying "Alice, what do you think?" would be perfectly acceptable when conversing privately.

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Solid answers already.

My approach would be to sidestep the whole apology/asking/mind-reading thing and just start referring to the boss as Dr as that's the implied preference. She'll let you know if that's not what she meant, but more likely the issue is fixed. with minimal fuss.

This is a written communication potentially accusing you of misconduct,. not something you want to get involved with if possible.

If she follows up with another email then reply along the lines of

'Sorry Dr XYX, there was no gender bias intended in any way, thank you for the 'heads up'.'

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    I am not sure that this is not an option as she has asked me directly why I referred to the other professor as doctor (but not her). I think it would be disrespectful/unprofessional to ignore a question from my boss. – AResearchAssistant Oct 22 at 20:00
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    It's always an option to defer dialogue by fixing the issue. If she comes back with a clear question, then by all means answer. But this is a written communication potentially accusing you of misconduct,. not something you want to get involved with if possible. – Kilisi Oct 22 at 20:04
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I don't think this response from your boss has come from a single instance, its a response to all emails. Doctors go through lot of hard work, pressure, misery and frustration to get the 'Dr.' title, its abivoius to them get frustrated when you are not referring them as a doctor (at all).

In your case, you should not only apologise, but also point out in a respectful way that to get a PHD degree for females is as hard as for males, you really admire her work etc. Beside this apologising mail you should careful in future technical discussions. I hope something will work for you.

  • this post looks hard to read (wall of text), would you mind editing it into better shape? – gnat Oct 23 at 5:55
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    If this were the case here, she would already have objected and not only after OP used the 'Dr' for another person. – FooTheBar Oct 23 at 6:28
  • As a holder of a PhD, I can safely say that having one doesn't exempt you from the rule that respect is earned, not given. People that stand on ceremony with academic titles are trying to have respect given. – Eric Oct 24 at 17:26

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