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Calling Female Government Leaders By Their First Names Is Gender Bias

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Calling Female Government Leaders By Their First Names Is Gender Bias

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There was a fascinating panel at the World Economic Forum today, with the Prime Minister of Poland, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, the Secretary-General of NATO and the Director of National Intelligence from the United States. The moderator was Fareed Zakaria, the host of GPS on CNN.

But Zakaria kept calling the women by their first names and the men by their titles. He clearly knew what he was doing, even at one point trying to make an excuse for it, by saying there were two deputy ministers on the panel and he needed to use her first name. Unacceptable. Disrespectful. He could have called her Deputy Prime Minister Freeland. Zakaria of all people should know better, because he has a long tenure in foreign affairs, including having International Politics and Economics, Harvard University and as Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.

Zakaria is unfortunately not alone, though doing it on the WEF stage to women at the very top of their governments is a new low. He consistently used the men’s titles and consistently used the women’s first names. He did use the women’s titles a couple of times.

Studies show that this pattern of not using women’s professional titles is part of the bias that is holding women back. It’s feeding the objectification of women, contributing to women not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts, from professors to doctors to business leaders, to government officials – even, apparently, heads of state. I hear it on the news regularly too, where Congresswomen are addressed by their first names, and Congressmen are referred to as “Congressman soandso.”

“If the male introducer addressed a male speaker, the use of title was up to 72% of the time.”

New research by the Mayo Clinic released in JAMA October 2022, showed that female doctors are twice as likely to be referred to by their first names by patients than male doctors were, even fictional ones. This research reflected that doctors referred to by their last names were perceived to be more credible than those referred to by their first names. This could effect funding, career advancement, awards, and other professional benefits for the women.

Another study in 2019, “looked at forms of address in more than 300 instances of introductions during grand rounds—formal meetings in hospitals during which clinical cases get discussed for educational purposes.” They found that “women introduced speakers by formal titles 96.2% of the time,” but that “When the introducer was a male addressing a female speaker, the use of titles went down to 49.2% of the time.” The men gave titles to their male counterparts, “If the male introducer addressed a male speaker, the use of title was up to 72% of the time.”

“Men and women were, on average across studies, more than twice as likely to describe a male (vs. female) professional by surname”

Yet another study about how gender plays a role in how we speak about professionals by Cornell University in 2018 found the same thing: In a series of eight studies, they found “evidence for a gender bias in how people speak about professionals. Men and women were, on average across studies, more than twice as likely to describe a male (vs. female) professional by surname in domains, such as science, literature, and politics. We find that this simple difference in reference affects judgments of eminence, with participants judging those professionals described by surname as more eminent and 14% more deserving of a career award. This gender bias may contribute to the gender gap in perceived eminence as well as in actual recognition and may partially explain the persistent state of women’s underrepresentation in high-status fields, including science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Men say they are confused – then do this

The women on Zakaria’s WEF panel today handled it with characteristic grace and dignity, but they shouldn’t have had to. So many men tell us they are confused about how they are being biased and that they don’t see women being held back.

Then they go and call female Deputy Prime Ministers by their first names – on one of the world’s most prestigious stages.

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