Photo by Leo Roomets on Unsplash

As you might imagine, I debated for a bit before I decided to wade into the topic of titles today. If you’ve been on social media the past few days or the op-ed section of many newspapers you know there has been, well, let’s call it a discussion, about the use of the title ‘doctor’ in academia. I have nothing really to add to that debate, although once I ended up with a plane reservation for Gage Paine, DDS, thanks to the person making the reservation calling me doctor. I didn’t realize what my boarding pass said until a TSA agent made a comment about a dentist named Paine. I had no idea what he was talking about until I got through the line and took a good look at the piece of paper in my hand. For the record, I do use the title Doctor in my work and while I do occasionally use the term ‘kiddo’ when I address a few close family members, I don’t think it’s an appropriate term of address in almost any other circumstance.

But that’s not what I want to write about today though it did start me thinking about this topic. I want to consider the role and use of titles more generally. Over the course of my career, I have tried to be very thoughtful about the use of titles. They have a role and a place in our work, but like any other signifier of power and status, they deserve to be used thoughtfully. Decisions about titles are leadership decisions.

In my first professional job, my title was Associate Dean of Students. I turned 25 one month after I began that job and I looked 18, maybe. I asked students to call me either Dean Paine or Ms. Paine and I never wore jeans on campus – even to football games. I was telling the world, including my new colleagues, I was not a student, that I held a position of responsibility on campus. It was important that there be no confusion with students about my role. My title and my attire helped me set appropriate boundaries.

At UT Austin, a very much larger campus, I didn’t worry so much about titles. I was working in Student Conduct and there was no confusion about my role for the students who were required to see me. At SMU, as Dean of Students, and now with a completed doctorate, most students called me Dr. or Dean Paine. There, and later on other campuses, students who knew me well, but weren’t sure about calling me by my first name found an interesting compromise. They were the students who would greet me as we passed on campus by saying “Hi, Gage Paine.” No title, but not too familiar.

Then I became a vice president at Trinity University. As a new vice president and the only woman in the president’s cabinet, I found myself balancing conflicting values. I wanted to practice and model a less hierarchical style of leadership so I invited the staff in my division to call me Gage. Some did, others chose not to. However, all of my male colleagues were addressed on campus by their titles and I didn’t like the implied message if I was the only one referred to by first name. So, I also asked my colleagues to use my title with students and ‘in public’.

How we address each other matters for so many reasons. Titles or the lack thereof, send signals about status, power, expertise, hierarchy, and respect. What we think about them is based on our own experience with all of these elements. During that first job where I looked, and was, young, one of my faculty colleagues asked me a surprising question. He was a visiting professor, about my age. One day he asked, “why do you call female faculty by their first names and male faculty by their titles and last names?” Until he asked me, I had no idea I had been doing just that. I changed my practice, but I had to work against some ingrained habits and it was uncomfortable at first.

Since then, especially in my leadership positions, I’ve tried to be thoughtful about the messages titles send and to make active decisions about when and where to use them. – for myself and for others. I’ve also tried to be respectful of others who have made different choices based on their experiences.

What have been your experiences with titles throughout your career? What have you had to learn or, as in my case, unlearn? What messages have you been sending about power and status and did you make active decisions about such messages or did you fall into a habit as I did? The current public discussion has many levels, but the question about titles and how we respectfully address one another is an important one. It’s a leadership question and, I think, one worth some thought.

Take care,

Gage E. Paine, J.D., Ph.D.

PS – One of my favorite uses of my title ever came on the invitation to my older grandson’s high school graduation. The outer envelope was addressed to Mr. Grandpops and Dr. Gigi.

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