Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What's the message here?

I've just read a review in the Wall Street Journal by Sir Peter Stothard of Maria Wyke's Caesar: A Life in Western Culture. I haven't actually read the book myself, though I know I really need to at some point. And I'm not going to do more than note the slightly sniffy tone Sir Peter takes towards the field of reception studies.

What drives me to comment is the following sentence:

Ms. Wyke, however, is a sophisticated practitioner of her craft, a professor of Latin at University College London and a graduate of the British Film Institute.

For me, this raises the question: if Sir Peter knows Wyke is a professor, then why not refer to her as "Prof. Wyke"? Instead, Sir Peter uses "Ms. Wyke" throughout. This looks, on the face of it, an instance of diminishing the status of female academics, by not using the same courtesy title as one would grant to a male. It's more common than you'd think. As a male myself, I've largely been insulated from it, but a Ph.D.-qualified friend of mine described receiving an e-mail from a female student that correctly referred to two of the academic's male colleagues as 'Dr', but addressed her as 'Miss'. And this wasn't the first time something like this had happened to her.

But perhaps I'm being unfair to Sir Peter. I'm fairly sure this is Sir Peter's choice, rather than something imposed by a WSJ sub-editor, as it's repeated in his blog entry referring to the review. Now, as far as I recall, the practice in Oxbridge colleges used to be to refer to members of staff as 'Mr' or 'Ms', regardless of doctorates or chairs. Sir Peter is a Trinity, Oxford, man, so perhaps he's following that practice.

Well, no. Glancing over Sir Peter's blog, his practice appears to be to refer to male writers by surname alone, without title. Perhaps Sir Peter feels he's being polite and courteous by using 'Ms.' for a woman, but actually it strikes me as rather patronizing. I'm not for a moment accusing Sir Peter of being deliberately misogynist or sexist. But it remains all too easy for males (and not for a moment do I except myself here) to slip without thinking into unexamined chauvinist attitudes.

There's still a long way to go before women are treated equally for doing the same work as men. But we can certainly make a step in the right direction if we remember to refer to, e.g., Maria Wyke as "Prof. Wyke", or "Wyke", but never "Ms Wyke".


Anonymous said...

I am very punctilious about this.

You may call me Farah, Farah Mendlesohn or Dr. Mendlesohn, but *never* Miss or Ms.

Tony Keen said...

Exactly. I'm fairly punctilious about it myself in an academic context - I worked bloody hard for that doctorate, and don't take kindly to it being ignored. So even if someone did refer to everyone as 'Mr' and 'Ms', regardless of qualification, I wouldn't think it was right. But the fact that there's then a sexist dimension makes it far far worse.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Mr. Stothard would mind having the same standards of address applied to himself?