In an op-ed published by Wall Street Journal in December 2020, Joseph Epstein discredits the current First Lady of the United States. He claims that her doctorate title feels “fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” He goes on to further condescend her efforts in achieving the title, remarking the subject of her dissertation as ‘unpromising’. He even went as far as to refer to her as ‘kiddo’.

Epstein, who has not received an advanced degree but does possess an honorary doctorate, comments that unless they have delivered a child, no one should call themselves ‘Dr’. Jill Biden, who earned her doctorate in education by discussing the maximization of student retention in community colleges, now works as a professor at one such institution. Epstein continues to argue that anybody can get a doctorate these days and that honorary degrees are handed out to undeserving celebrities – as if he did not have one himself. His conclusion is just as patronizing, “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.”

Gender disparity in academia

There was heavy backlash towards Epstein’s remarks which sparked outrage from many. However, for women in education, Epstein’s disrespect came as no surprise. Women in academia are often sidelined, devalued and overruled, in order to prioritise the achievements of their male counterparts. While men are able to reap the benefits of their professional acalades, women are conditioned to do the opposite, regardless of whether or not they were equally qualified.

In 2015, women closed the undergraduate degree gap across several STEM fields but still only accounts for only 28% of the workforce in these fields. Employment in STEM fields consist of some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, and while the number of women in science and engineering is growing, men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of these professions. The gender gaps in these fields are commonly perpetuated by factors concerning gender stereotypes, male-dominated cultures and the lack of female role models.

Compared to their male counterparts, women are less likely to win academic awards. After its 603 occurrences, only 57 women have been awarded the historic honour of a Nobel Prize. Women’s academic titles are also less acknowledged by men. A 2017 study presents that when men introduced female doctors, they utilised professional titles only 49% of the time. However, when male doctors were introduced, 70% of the time their professional titles were used.

Denial of female authority

The rejection of women’s academic achievements and contributions stems from a deeper-rooted issue – the absolute refusal of female authority. In a society where men are expected to ‘take charge’, women are less likely to be considered authority figures. Domestication is often unconsciously forced upon them instead. Per these centuries-old gender norms, men and women alike were known to prefer having a man assume the position of a leader.

The gender gap in authority reflected the many chronic power differences between men and women. Though there are more women taking on traditionally masculine roles, the perception that these gender-based social roles may differ still remains intact. Consistent with this bias, women were allowed less authority and compensated less for it, resulting in dramatic underrepresentation in leadership positions. In contrast, men are provided prestige and status experiences, simply by virtue of being male. The belief of male dominance enabled generalizing the idea that men are superior and thus deserve to control and receive more resources than women. As a result, women in authoritarian roles or with more qualifications, are socially stigmatized breaching an expectancy that men are natural leaders.

Many women have also cited experiences where their credibility was doubted and men had taken to teach them about their own fields, despite being less qualified. Dubbed as mansplaining -a clever mashup of the words ‘man’ and ‘explain’-, this phenomenon occurs where a man will explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner.

Mansplaining is considered a regular occurrence among social and academic circles. In fact, its appearance in mainstream commentary sparked the global understanding that women are constantly belittled and assumed as less knowledgeable than men.

In her 2008 essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me: Facts Didn’t Get in Their Way‘, author Rebecca Solnit notes one instance where a man interrupts her to explain her own book to her, describing it as “something every woman knows”.

Significance of women’s education

Women have had a central position in academia since the 1800s, as educators and learners in both formal and informal settings. Yet women’s education still a heavily debated issue across several countries. The global literacy rate for women is approximately 80% but they still represent over half of the global illiterate population. Women are continuously excluded from educational environments in many developing countries and deprived of the right to learn. Reasons for their ejection range from poverty to geography but most prominently, due to gender disparity. Moreover, women who still seek education despite their exclusion are subjected to academic environments without proper infrastructure, sanitation or adequate learning materials.

“Women share this planet 50/50 and they are underrepresented, their potential astonishingly untapped.”

Emma Watson

Educating women is critical in improving the socio-economic conditions around the world. Women are better compensated for their labor and available for opportunities surrounding professional development as well. Having more educated women within the country’s population allows a positive influence on the overall economic productivity. It also increases the equitability of the distribution of wealth in a society and is particularly favorable for impoverished women, who are commonly disadvantaged in many developed and under-developing countries. In addition to this, educated women are more likely to gain a better understanding of social issues surrounding marriage, reproduction, employment, and abuse. Education provides women with enhanced cognitive abilities, thus allowing them civic participation in fields previously exclusive for men.

Ensuring continuous female empowerment

Many women with similar academic backgrounds as Jill Biden, condemned the Wall Street Journal for the article and the hashtag #MyTitleIsDr was established to campaign for educated women. Dr. Sarah Parcak invited women with doctorates to support other women in academia by tweeting“To all women who are PhDs: In solidarity with Dr. Jill Biden and to stand in solidarity against that sexist trash op-ed about her in the WSJ, please consider adding “Dr” to your Twitter name to show how many of us there are. We deserve respect. You earned your PhD. #mytitleisdr”. 

Unfortunately, the contributions of women in academia are still dismissed and overlooked by many today. It also begs the question at what point will society begin to fully accept and value women’s achievements, and provide them with the necessary validation and respect they rightfully deserve.

Contrary to relentless sexist beliefs, women have worked far too hard and broken through too many barriers to hide their academic achievements. With so many socioeconomic issues still surrounding female education, it is absolutely crucial that women continue to use their academic titles and actively empower one another.

Read also:
A Nursing Student Helps Ghanaian Women Stay In School
Malala Is Making Waves In Education Years After Sharing Her Story
Reflection: Lack Of Black History In Canada’s Education Curriculum