I’ve long wondered about this, and explore that question in my latest Bloomberg column. I’ve discouraged this for a long time:
…I have insisted that my graduate students call me “Tyler.” My goal has been to encourage them to think of themselves as peer researchers who might someday prove me wrong, rather than viewing me as an authority figure who is handing down truth.
Some of the strongest norms are around the title “Doctor.” Just about everyone calls their physician “Doctor,” though the esteemed profession of lawyer does not receive similar treatment. As a Ph.D.-toting academic, I’ve even had people say to me — correctly — “You’re not a real doctor.”
I fear that by ceding this unique authority status to doctors we are making it easier for them to oversell us medical care, a major problem in the U.S. If your doctor suggests that you need a procedure done, it can be hard to say no, especially if you have been deferring to that person for years through the use of an honorific title. On the upside, perhaps all that deference has encouraged many people to get their vaccinations.
There are some arguments for titles:
Sometimes a title can be used to suggest a subordinate position, such as the use of Nurse. It can be an honorific, but it also places the person below the Doctor. The advantage, however, is one of greater anonymity and remove. A woman in particular might prefer “Nurse Washington” over the use of her real full name, given the potential risk of harassment.
Title issues and gender issues intersect in tricky ways. A title such as doctor or professor can give a woman newfound respect, but perhaps the practice hurts respect for women as a whole, since they are titled at lower rates than men.
What I expect we will see is that “established” women and minorities will insist on title usage all the more, to command respect, and under the guise of societal feminization we will evolve a new set of non-egalitarian hierarchies, presented and marketed to us under egalitarian pretenses. On related ideas, see my earlier post on the first date book walk out meme.