I belong to a now semi-famous physician mothers group on a social media site.  Overall, it has served as a definite source of support and empowerment to me and others, as well as a veritable spring of information on various topics, ranging from breastfeeding to latest treatment of aging skin.  Occasionally, it has also served as a sounding board for various complaints and has created the perfect medium for us to vent (or twitch with a capital B).

One of the most common themes for these twitch sessions tends to center around not getting appropriate respect.  More often than not, this comes from a failure of others to recognize that we are, in fact, actual physicians, and address us as such.

This grievance is ubiquitous, and painfully familiar to all of us.  It can present in many ways:

  • You see a patient daily all week, have lengthy meetings with his family, maybe even perform CPR and resuscitate like a champ, and then they complain that they never got to speak to a doctor.
  • You receive a letter from your med school alumni association—asking for money, no less!—addressed to Mrs. Smith.  Really, med school?  Even you can’t remember that I’m a doctor?
  • You are seated at a wedding and the place card reads Dr. and Mrs. for you and your spouse – even though both are doctors.

And the consensus is – we don’t like this.  We don’t like any of this.

However, recently, there was one post that took me by complete surprise. It had to do with a young physician getting married.  As this doctor and her husband entered the dining room at their wedding for the first time, they were introduced simply as Mr. and Mrs.  When asked why she wasn’t introduced as “Doctor,” she said she was only a doctor at work and wanted to be a Mrs. in her personal life, and that she didn’t want to make her husband feel bad.

In the context of the original post, I could see her perspective. On her wedding day, this physician may have only wanted to focus on the new togetherness, and not what she does for a living.  It’s kind of romantic.  And how you choose to be introduced at your wedding does not necessarily mandate how you will be introduced for the rest of your marriage.  However, to my great chagrin, out of following 424 comments, over 300 supported leaving the “doctor” title at work.       

A lot of women said that they wanted to keep their personal and professional life separate; that their being a doctor is just a job and not “who they are.”  Some pragmatically commented that they prefer to fly incognito when it comes to the nature of their occupation because they don’t want to be the doctor on the plane, nor do they have interest in doling out medical advice on the soccer field.

I was confused. Where were all the women who fought so fiercely for the right to be called doctor?  Where were the ones who complained so bitterly, and rightfully, about being confused for, and treated as, someone else?

One woman postulated that it would be ludicrous if all the other professionals went around demanding to be addressed by their professional title: nurse so and so, or loan officer so and so.  It is just a job, she said.  But I rather have a problem with the notion that this is “just a job,” and doctor is “just a title.”  If we take a step back and look at how we live our lives, how can we honestly say that this is “just a job?” Maybe being a teacher, or a nurse, or even an attorney is just a job, but being a doctor is most certainly a calling and part of who you are. In my opinion, you can no more turn it off when you leave work than you can turn off your name.

The part that probably bothered me most was the “not making the husband feel bad.”  There were several people who seemed to agree that focusing on the fact that she was a doctor and he wasn’t would somehow be damaging to the man’s ego.  My problem with this is three-fold.  First, it assumes that being a physician is somehow superior than being a non-physician, and I prefer to believe that as a community, the doctor-god complex has been quelled.  Second, I don’t really understand how being a doctor is emasculating to one’s spouse.  And finally, someone needs to explain to me why we are so worried about coddling the male ego, even to our own detriment.

Now, I don’t necessarily consider myself a feminist.  In fact, I am quite happy to admit that I need a man.  I am strong and independent in some ways, but in others, I need a lot of support, and in still others, I am admittedly absolutely helpless; I recognize that, and it’s fine with me.

And I took my husband’s name—mainly, because his is easier to pronounce.   But at my own wedding, which took place between my third and fourth year of medical school, I made sure we were introduced as “first name and first name last name.”  We were introduced this way because even though I was not a doctor YET, I was going to become one, and it was going to be part of who I was, and just because we were getting married a mere year before the official title, didn’t mean that I would instead be someone’s Mrs. Something about being a Mrs. irks whatever feminist sensibilities that I do have.

Reflecting on my reaction to this post, and to its comments, I had to do some soul searching and digging to really analyze my own behavior.  Do I ever insist on being called doctor outside of work?  I actually don’t think I do. In fact, I think I feel a bit embarrassed when people address me as Dr. out in the real world.  But I also sure as hell never get called Mrs. either. That is not who I am.  I am either my first name in a casual setting, or I am doctor if you feel like addressing me formally

I have to wonder whether this trend I am seeing now is part of the new post feminist world, where women feel that they no longer have anything to prove, and thus, are happy to compartmentalize the different facets of their lives.  I think these days, it is a lot more common to have women going to work part-time, or leaving medicine altogether because thanks to the pioneers of the decades past who paved the way for us, we really don’t have as much to prove, and have more freedom to do that which works for us and our families.

I also have to wonder whether our male counterparts ever even think twice about compartmentalizing anything.

I was willing to bet that the men, once doctors, were always doctors.  I actually went ahead and asked some of my male colleagues about this, and to my even greater surprise, the two I asked (aged 36 and 47) said they generally go by first name-last name outside of work, and never insist on being called doctor. They also usually introduce themselves by their first name, and don’t correct if someone calls them Mr.

Color me surprised!  Maybe there is a post feminist male, as well.  Can’t wait to meet him.