Workplace Unequal: Say My Name, Say My Title

The 21st century is an amazing time to be a woman, and now that Trump and Mike are leaving the White House, we even get to see Kamala elected as Vice-President for Biden.  

Did that sound correct in your inner monologue, or did you have to pause to remember who “Mike” was? It is strange to say Trump and Mike, and yet it is not unusual to hear Biden and Kamala.  

Though it is such a seemingly small difference, the reason for it is rooted in something substantial.  

Titles and Last Names 

Dr. Trischa Goodnow, a Professor of Speech and Communication at Oregon State University, said in an email, “Women are perceived as less powerful and serious, based in patriarchy and history. Historically, women didn’t hold high power positions in business and industry. Consequently, the women that were there were subservient to men. Women are often referred to by their first name rather than a more formal title. Presidential politics is a great example. In 2016, it was all too common to hear that the race was between Trump and Hillary. 

Even on a state level, the prevalence of using a first man for a female politician is notable. Oregon State Senator, Sarah Gelser, said that when Governor Brown was sworn in, she particularly noticed people calling her “Kate,” though the prior two governors were never referred to that way. Even in situations where her title was the only appropriate way to refer to her, Governor Brown was being called “Kate” or “Katie.” 

“I have noticed that at times when I am on panels, I am introduced as “Sara” while my colleagues are introduced as ‘Representative’ or ‘Senator,’” said Gelser. “That said, I am very informal and rarely ask to be called by my title.” 

Gelser later said, “However, in formal situations or when others are being referred to by their titles, I do think it is important to be addressed in a similar manner. It’s a matter of equity.” 

Goodnow said in one of her classes, a female student who was also the leader of a firefighting crew realized that both her crew and her boss referred to her by her first name, and everyone else was called by their last.  

As we talked about it, she wondered whether her crew and her boss thought of her less seriously because of the difference in the way to which she was referred. I think most people don’t think about the ways in which women are referred,” Goodnow said. “As a result, it becomes normalized. Most of the time it’s probably innocent, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have real impacts. If women are labeled differently, there’s a good chance they are treated differently in other ways as well. 

Even in scholarly settings, the equity that Gelser mentioned is not seen as often as hoped. Dr. Susan Shaw, a Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, said students act more casual to their female professors. For example, students may refer to women professors by their first names before being told that’s ok. They also are more likely to refer to women professors as Miss or Mrs. rather than Dr,” Shaw said. 

Naming and Power  

Goodnow said that when students use a title that infers marital status, she quickly corrects them.  

“Often times jobs and how they are titled can be a matter of control and hierarchy,” Goodnow said. “To assume that I am married (which I’m not) has all kinds of cultural and psychological associations. Not that being referred to as Mrs. is necessarily a bad thing, but in a university setting, to call me Mrs. denies my status and education.” 

What people are called is important, not just in the sense of a title.  

Naming is about power. The person with the power to name has a kind of power over other people. For each of us to name ourselves means we have the power of our own being,” Shaw said. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so egregious, for example, when someone refuses to call trans people by the name that person has named them themselves. It’s an assertion of power and a negating of self. 

20yearold Maddie Peeks, an OSU student and cashier at local Safeway, said that a few people at work opt not to call her by her name at all.  

I notice a lot that some of the male coworkers use “pet names” like honey, sweetie, etc.,” Peeks said.The pet names make me uncomfortable because it feels like I don’t know these people, and like I didn’t give them permission to call me names that are so personal. 

Peeks said she needs to permit people to be close to her, and those names are only ones you use if you are close.  

Goodnow said that names are also an expression of how we want to be seen. “When we get to name ourselves it tells the world how we wish to be viewed. If we allow others to name us, we are stuck with their view of us,” Goodnow wrote.  

Shaw said that some names bother her more than others. For me, the kinds of things that really irritate me are the words used about women—girl, lady, bitch, dyke—I could go on and on,” Shaw said. “Those kinds of words both minimize, caricature, limit, and insult women. 

According to Shaw, the harm from these terms depends on who says them. When a close male friend does this, it is annoying, but a person can have a conversation about why she dislikes the terms. Then it becomes more about the way the speaker views women.  

It’s more upsetting to me when women are referred to generally in these ways because that reflects the speaker’s embrace of male dominance— ‘Good morning, ladies? What are you girls up to today?’ Or ‘The ladies are having brunch while the men are playing golf.’ Or ‘When you get those girls together they talk so much the men can’t get a word in edgewise,’” Shaw wrote.  

She said recently, trolls on the right sent her emails about something she wrote about climate change. They called her “bitch” and “dyke” as well as other names.  

I think they thought calling me those misogynistic and homophobic names gave them a kind of power over me because of how those words have been wielded so often to shame and silence women,” she said. “Those words did not have that impact on me; in fact, they had very little impact because I understood what the emailers were trying to do. 

Behind the Names  

Shaw said that another way women face unequitable treatment in their workplaces is through men taking up space or touching them without permission.  

One of the things we see across workplaces is that men often touch women without asking, a little pat, a hand on the back, that sort of thing, or they stand too close or take up too much space,” Shaw said.  

Taking up space is not just in the workplace, and Shaw noted that pre-COVID-19 this happened in places such as movie theatres, airplanes, and walking down the street.  

Peeks said that during her workday she notices that people tend to flirt with her more than her male co-workers, and male customers are more likely to touch her shoulder or back. She did say that the majority of male customers do not do that though. “I feel like the men don’t know it’s weird or uncomfortable for me because no one tells them.”  

Touching someone or taking up their space isn’t the only way women are subliminally treated differently because of the patriarchy.  

Senator Gelser said that when her children were younger, she often got asked who was taking care of them while she was away, but did not hear the same inquires directed towards fathers who were working the same jobs.    

Aside from being incorrectly titled or not called by her title at all and questioned by people with certain views about women’s job in society, Gelser has also had to deal with blatantly sexist remarks.  

Once at a town hall, a gentleman came up and tried to hand me money. He told me it was so that I could buy pants because it is not possible to focus on what a woman is saying if her legs are revealed because she is wearing a skirt,” Gelser said. “I have never seen that happen to a man.  

Pushing Back 

Goodnow said that feminist rhetorical theory suggests that women’s experiences aren’t shown in language, which is partially because men aren’t comfortable recognizing women’s experiences.  

Using the example of menstruation, Goodnow said that this was a good way to get a man to stop talking. Yet, she pointed out, no matter how uncomfortable women were, men could talk on and on about erections.  

Because men have power, they get to set the standards. Yes, this is changing,” she said. “But until all women and minorities become comfortable to push back on double standards of language and experience, we enable men.” 

Shaw suggests asking people what they want to be called to ensure they are properly addressed.  

I’d also suggest checking your vocabulary about people and training yourself to stop calling women diminutive terms like girl or antiquated terms like lady or ugly terms (and you know which ones these are),” she said.  

Shaw added that asking yourself what things are most respectful and convey care and concern when speaking to or about someone is a good rule of thumb. She also mentioned that, especially on social media, how we write to and about others should be read over to be sure it is clear and careful.  

Gelser said that simple changes in how people are addressed are incredibly important.  

Language is very powerful and means different things to different people. I try to call people by the names, titles and pronouns they choose,” she said. It costs me nothing but the time it takes to ask, but it is a sign of deep respect for the other person.  Everyone should have the opportunity to make the very personal decision of how they are addressed.”  

By: Hannah Ramsey