Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mrs. Professor

This post is not a criticism, it is mostly a question (just to start off on a defensive note..).

I sent an email message to a professor in Germany requesting a letter of reference for a candidate who has applied for a position in my department. I addressed the email to Professor Y and signed the email with my name and title (Professor). I have never heard of this particular person before, and he clearly hadn't heard of me.

He sent the requested letter of reference attached to an email addressing me as "Mrs. X". He signed himself as "Professor Y".

I was curious about this. I have close colleagues and friends (all men) in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and I asked two of them about it. One of them told me that this professor may not ever have encountered a woman professor in his field before, he didn't know what was the proper form of address, and he may have decided that referring to a woman as "Mrs." was more respectful than "Professor". The other colleague said that reference letter requests are sometimes sent out by the secretary of a professor, and this professor just wasn't paying attention to how I signed my email. Does anyone believe those explanations? I suppose I do, not knowing otherwise. Despite having lived in various parts of Europe for a total of several years, I do not completely understand the academic cultures.

I don't think I am particularly hung up on being addressed as Professor. Students (undergrads and grads) in my department call all the professors by their first names, and this is fine with me. However, I don't like the disparity implied by Professor Y's identifying himself as a Professor but not me.

Even so, I think that if there were more women professors, there wouldn't be any question about whether to address a woman professor by her title or marital status, these annoying little situations would become very rare, and I wouldn't be so (over)sensitive to them anymore.


Anonymous said...

I would want to beleive that the secretary did that. Professors generally refer to each other as Dr. or Prof. in emails (all over the world).

It could be a simple case of cultural difference too. In some countries, professors just write their name in the end (without any prefix like Dr. or Prof.), since the letterhead (or email signature) mentions the prefix already. Maybe in that part of Germany, women professors like themselves to be addressed as Mrs. rather than Prof. or Dr. :)

Am I a woman scientist? said...

I have to believe it's a secretary-issue. I've interacted with a lot of (male) professors here who have their (usually female) assistants and/or students (it's hard for me to tell sometimes) send out letters, reprint requests, etc. To make things more confusing, sometimes it's difficult to tell which person actually physically sent the message, since the professor and the assistant seem to use the same email account.

I haven't run into any female professors who have assistants like this, although sadly I haven't run into any female professors here yet....

Anonymous said...

I was taught by a German friend that the proper way to do it is to address someone as formally as possible first, and wait for them to tell you that it is okay to use a less formal means of address. After you are requested to use a less formal name, you use nothing but the less formal. Since I was told that this is something that all Germans learn, I'm surprised to hear about your experience!

What bothers me about the use of "Mrs" is that it is just plain wrong. I don't mind being called by my first name (which is unusual in my department), but I really don't like getting emails or letters addressed to "Mrs". I worked just as hard for my PhD as any of the men in my department (who tell me they almost never get emails to "Mr" so and so).

My husband (who got his PhD a year after me) and I get letters all the time addressed to Dr. and Mrs. His-Last-Name. Not only have the forgotten my name (which I didn't change), they've forgotten my degree, too!

DrOtter said...

Why was it Mrs and not Miss or Ms?

sab said...

My understanding from the German book I used before visiting for a month that you would address a male professor as something like "Herr Docktor Y", so I'm suprised that you didn't get Mrs. Dr. Prof. X, or some such thing.

While I was there I found that people were generally formal on first encounter, but indeed, women in academia are even more uncommon than in North America (especially in the physical sciences). When other PhD students found out I was married, it was common for them to ask "so do you want to have children?" to which I answered "yes, someday". This was then met with great befuddlement, and followed up with "so.. why are you getting a PhD?"... and they meant it. They absolutely expected that if I planned to have children I would not be planning a carreer in academia. Usually the conversation ended with something like "Good Luck!", despite my trying to explain things were a bit different here.

That said, they have great respect for women, for example, women have special parking spaces in clean, well-lit areas (not just pregnant women, ALL women). On the flip side, "day-care" is so rare it is almost a foreign concept. It just seems to be a societal difference, and one that is slow to change.

You likely threw Herr Prof. Y and/or his secretary for a loop, and they just didn't know what the appropriate approach would be. I doubt it was meant with any disresepct for your position, and they may have determined that Mrs. was a title of greater respect.

ps- to propterdoc, I don't think there is a distinction in German between miss and mrs. over a certain age you are "Frau" not "Fraulein" irrespective of your marital status.

Anonymous said...

We're all usually ready to think it's the innocuous reason at first, because I think we're less willing to assume that someone is a) stupid or b) slighting you in a similarly uninformed fashion. But from everything I do know about German professors, which has been pretty consistent, and yes, a little weird at first, they're pretty sharp about the rank of academics. If you signed your name as Professor X, he either screwed up big time or he assumed you're nobody. I don't really buy the secretary thing, unfortunately. Linguistically, I've always seen it made very clear when letters and emails are from aides. Even across a language barrier, it's hard to miss.

Now that being said....

One of the first research engineers I worked for was German and he has some funny ways of talking about people. He was actually pretty concerned with making sure people got a fair shake belong race or gender and managed to portray that in a really awkward way, and it took years to learn what he really meant in some situations. I do know that even though he never expressed it to me (ever), it meant a lot to him that I succeeded in what we worked on together because there weren't many women in the field/department and it sometimes concerned him. But this is something he would have done. He would have noticed that you were a woman and it probably would have made him happy, and so that fact would have stuck in his head, and possible manifested in the addressing of the email. He wouldn't have bothered to proofread the email (or spellcheck...or see if he'd bothered to write in English...)so he wouldn't have caught it.

I don't think that example is GOOD, but it's more innocuous than what is more likely to have happened. I'm not going to pretend that this is a good thing here, but perhaps the possibility for it to have been initially risen from a positive reaction does exist.

Dr. Lisa said...

I understand why it struck you the wrong way. I feel the same way when I get addressed as "Mrs." instead of "Dr.", especially as I'm not married. I seldom hear a male colleague addressed as "Mr." instead of "Dr." Even if it isn't intentional, it is certainly ignorant on someone's part.

Anonymous said...

The alumni association of the institution I received my PhD from addresses all funding requests to Mr J, not Dr J. I figure if the degree was that worthless they don't deserve a donation.

In this case I would chalk it up to a simple mistake.

Whenever I am in doubt about how to respond, I always go for Professor. Perhaps there are legions of insulted secretaries thinking I have cast aspersions on their ability to wear matching socks. But I would hate to make the mistake this writer did.

Anonymous said...

I'm german, and I would also assume that his secretary did that. Most profs I know have secretaries, and they seem to make mistakes like that sometimes.
The correct german thing to say would have been Frau Professor, which translates to either Mrs or Misss or Ms Professor, since there is no such distinction in german, as Sab already pointed out.

It would be really strange for him to consciously decide that Mrs. is more respectful than Prof. I really don't buy this explanation at all.

nt moore said...

I'll bet it was a mistake. From what I remember of my high-school german (and b-grade spy movies), the German syntax would be something like "Herr Doctor" (literally "Mr. Doctor") for a male doctorate holder. Perhaps he meant to write "Frau Doctor" ("Mrs. Doctor")

I personaly try to always address letters like this to "Professor" - it seems like a much safer choice than guessing at a level of academic achievement.

Ms.PhD said...

Boy, so much debate! My initial reaction was that the secretary did that.

On further thought, I'm wondering if it's a misunderstanding about cultural differences in career hierarchy. For example, in Japan almost no one is a Professor, and I think there may be only one woman who is a Professor in the whole country. So the title there means something a bit different than it does here (it's almost more like Department Head or something higher up still). This is also true in many European countries, with various names and so forth.

So maybe in his sexist little brain, it's not that you couldn't be anything other than Mrs., he just assumed you couldn't possibly be that high up (?).

Anonymous said...

Yesterday, I received an email addressed to Ms. ----, saying that Dr. ---- had referred the sender to me for information. The sender was female.

It frequently happens that parents of my students refer to the colleague with whom I work most closely as Dr., though he has no doctorate, and that the same parents assume that I do not have a Ph.D.

When I've dealt with Japanese academics (happened today, in fact), they always address me as Professor.

Anonymous said...

I lived over there many years.

Frau = Mrs so it ended up that way for them, instead of Ms.

Your correct title is Frau Prof. Dr. (name).

I still keep my title in both my email header (ie the name they see come up in the email program) as well as my signature. It usually stops problems before they start.

Probably a secretary issue but hard to say. Germany is very advanced for women's rights overall, Swizerland and Austria are horrific.

Anonymous said...

Do you think Madame Curie is less respectful than Dr. Curie or Prof. Curie?

Female Science Professor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

You're not being over sensitive. Over the years I received emails or letters addressed to Mrs... or Frau... so many times I couldn't begin to count. And it bugs me everytime. Still! Usually the person writing the letter does actually know who I am, but they still write Mrs anyway. My usual response is to make a point of answering the message/letter, addressing the person as Dear MR XYZ and signing the message with PROFESSOR. A couple of times the letter writer has realized their mistake and has sent me an apology.

FSP: Reading your blog on a daily basis I am continually amazed at the similar experiences we share as a junior senior female scientist (love that term!). Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I am German speaking (although not German) and have commented a few times here before. This time, I believe it's really a cultural thing: In Germany, a very current from of address in speaking really IS Herr/Frau Whatever, even though it says Dr of Prof on the door, the business card and the letter head. Even students often call their advisors Herr .... (rarely Frau ...., because there are not even 10% women among the full Profs)
So, it could be that he wrote Mrs, because it's an address and signed with Prof. because that's more like the letter head/business card thing.

I still think such behaviour weird and have to struggle not to be offended by their rudeness, but I presume that's because I am Austrian and we are known for taking titles seriously. When we had a conference here in Germany a year ago, many Germans addressed all the revered elder male professors as Mr. ....

I recently lectured a few German students on the topic of addressing professors in English (not that I'm anexpert, but it was exactly on the Mr/Mrs issue), and they seemed to get it. As one of them put it: "Wow, you mean, I have managed to offend him with the very first line of my mail by alleging that his resaerch didn't deserve a PhD and much less a professorship? So that's why he never responded..."

Anonymous said...

I work in Germany (but am not german) and this happens all the time even from people who know full well I am a Dr.... it even happens in conversation! So I would honestly write it off to a cultural difference - although I too find it annoying. The odd smattering of emails addressed to 'Professor Mrs Dr', given that I haven't go the first one yet, makes up for it though...

Anonymous said...

This is a bit weird, even for someone who is German and grew up in Germany, like me -- it could indeed have been the secretary, maybe even assuming you are a secretary as well (I've seen email signatures like Firstname Lastname, PROFESSOR Name -- meaning that she is this professor's secretary...)
On the one hand, it does happen a lot that people are called Herr/Frau whether they have a title or not (Mr/Mrs in the direct translation, Fräulein is hardly ever used for people over ~20, so to use Ms or Miss you'd need to know a bit about the culture). On the other hand, some professors are very picky about being called Herr Prof. Dr. Dr. etc., so it would not fit at all to address a fellow professor without a title...

Anonymous said...

Send a reply thanking him for his letter, addressed to Mr., signed Prof. I doubt it was his secrertary that sent the email (from my time in Germany, when this happens you always see that it came from the assistant's email address, although signed by the prof), I think it was that he didn't think a woman would be a professor.

Anonymous said...

I speak german fluently and have spent a part of my academic career in Germany.

No professor (or secretary thereof) would address another professor as Herr/Frau Lastname. The formal address would be Sehr geehrter Herr/Frau Prof. Dr. Lastname, which might be translated into Dear (Mr/Mrs/Ms) Professor (Dr) depending on the writer's proficiency in english.

My conjecture is that whoever adressed you as Mrs Lastname didn't read your letter carefully and *assumed*, since your firstname is female, that you're a secretary.

This conjecture is not based on my email experiences (I work in a small field and we tend to know each other), but on my time in Germany, when many people would see me in the corridor of the Max-Planck-Institut and immediately assume that I was part of the secretarial staff instead of a visiting scientist: i.e., stop me to ask all kinds of daily life and/or administrative question.

I was kind of relieved when I returned to my southern european country, where professors are paid as much as secretaries in Germany, and (therefore?) many more science professors are female.


Jenny F. Scientist said...

I'd have to guess someone was making assumptions and not paying attention, too. Whenever I correspond with foreign labs about reagent requests, they all address me as 'Dr. Scientist' even though I'm not!

Anonymous said...

Adressing you as "Mrs." was rude and /no/ secretary would do that unless ordered to. If anything, secretaries are typically much more considerate and careful than their professors.

Regarding what people say about the correct form of address: There is lots of variation, obviously, and additionally quite a difference between speech and writing. In writing, including e-mail, people tend to err on the side of too much formality rather than too little I've often received letters addressed to "Dr. X" (even though I'm just a PhD student).

In speech, however, leaving out the title is commonplace.

Anonymous said...

An early comment here said
"I was taught by a German friend that the proper way to do it is to address someone as formally as possible first, and wait for them to tell you that it is okay to use a less formal means of address. ... Since I was told that this is something that all Germans learn, I'm surprised to hear about your experience!"

This used to be something that all Americans learned, as well. I still believe it to be appropriate.

On a separate note, I am often frustrated by being called Mrs or Ms when all of my male colleagues are called Dr. I can easily understand it from students, however. The vast majority of professors in my (math) department are male. The vast majority of the instructors are female, and do not hold doctorates. The assumption that a female is an instructor is natural.

I do get upset when I regularly see correspondence sent to a group of tenure-track faculty, and the recipient list includes Dr.A, Dr.B, Dr.C, Ms.D, Dr.E, etc. I find this wildly insulting.

Anonymous said...

I agree, as being a German, with Ingo and I guess too that he did not read carefully. But I realy wonder because we are usually very formal.

BTW: to turn it around. It happens to me 2-3 times, that i have been entitled as Prof. by people from the the US. Although i ave not yet a ph.d. ;o)

Anonymous said...

I was astonished and incensed to see my name listed on a study section roster as "Mrs." when everyone else was listed as "Dr." - and every one of us was a PhD or MD. Come on, NIH, not a bright move!! I emailed the scientific review administrator immediately and asked him to fix it.

Anonymous said...

Evidently, it's a common mistake. Here is an article from the New York Times that profiles two prominent female chemistry professors - one of which is at my university (I am a graduate student) - and refers to them as "Ms.X and Ms.Y"

Anonymous said...

I just posted about the NYT article, and e-mailed the journalist asking about the correctness of his use of titles. Here is his reply:

"Dear X,

In my opinion, there should be no distinction between referring to male or female professors. Indeed, I used Ms. for the female PhDs in my column, and Mr. for the male PhD, Stan Wasserman. As to what I think is your unspoken question, why did I not call any of them "Dr.," I was trained that only medical doctors should be referred to as Dr. In the wake of a number of questions as to why I did not call all of them "Dr.," I went back and checked the Associated Press stylebook, which I thought was the source of the proscription against calling PhDs "Dr." In fact, AP does not proscribe this use entirely, though it discourages it.

In any case, I do not set style standards for the Times or anyone else, and thus can not be a style authority for you. I can tell you that The Economist, a British publication, uses Dr. to refer to PhDs.


Michael Fitzgerald"

So there you have it.

Anonymous said...

All right. Put your German books away. They won't help you here. I am a German woman science professor (yes, there are more than one of us). No, we don't like to be addressed as "Frau X".

This is not a secretary issue - it is a blatant put down. Why? Well, because one German professor does *not* call another professor "Prof. Dr. X". The proper mode of address is "Herr Kollege" or "Frau Kollegin" - Mr. or Ms. Colleague. Another writer has said very correctly: German academics are very sensitive to questions of rank.

If you want to put an edge on it, you write "Meine sehr verehrte Frau Kollegin" which is pretending to be polite while being condescending.

Just writing Mrs. is an enormous put-down, as you are being refused the "colleage" salutory.

But there is not much you can do - you want something from him, and luckily you don't have to work with him until retirement. I have a few around here I have to put up with until they retire....

Anonymous said...

I would buy into the "secretary did it" theory; seems perfectly possible to me as I have had a similar experience earlier when I applied to a PhD program in Switzerland.

However, since I studied in Sweden - which is arguably the most *egalitarian* society - I always make it a point to refer to any professor as Prof. Dr. Y, irrespective of gender!