inclusive language, linguistic anthropology

The double bind of correcting unconscious demotions

Just last week, a study came out showing that women are much more likely to use men’s professional titles in introductions than the other way around. And an earlier study shows the clear importance of using professional titles in the same context, so this is hardly a trivial concern.

How should we respond when someone doesn’t use a title for us, or uses the wrong one? It’s more challenging than it seems. When it happens to me, I don’t want to seem uptight or like I care overmuch about titles and formalities — but I also don’t want to condone a pattern that contributes to persistent inequality.

There’s a word (well, a phrase) for it: unconscious demotion

Suzanne Wertheim coined the term unconscious demotion to refer to “the unthinking habit of assuming that somebody holds a position lower in status or expertise than they actually do,” and that’s exactly what I’m talking about here. It’s one of the ways unconscious bias plays out: it happens most often to women and people of color.

Why women and people of color? Because we don’t fit many people’s image of accomplishment. The prototype is older, whiter, straighter, or more male than we are.

If you don’t experience it consistently, it sounds like a small thing. Who cares if someone calls you Ms. Berry instead of Dr. Berry? But it doesn’t just happen once. Instead, it’s part of a larger pattern, and that pattern often hurts the careers of those it happens to. It’s exhausting when it happens frequently, and it can mean that people go to fewer industry events or even change professions.

And it’s not just a question of titles. Among the many forms unconscious demotions can take: some folks’ credentials get questioned regularly, even though they’re highly qualified. Some folks are regularly left out of meetings, or ignored when they speak up. And some folks are regularly asked to take on lower-status tasks in the workplace: taking notes in meetings, cleaning up, or organizing gifts or parties.

The double bind of responding

In her article, Wertheim gives a great set of suggestions about how to avoid demoting others:

  1. Be mindful, and don’t make assumptions about others’ professional position.
  2. Ask open-ended questions: “So what do you do?” rather than “Are you a [nurse/doctor]?”
  3. Don’t act surprised, and don’t grill people on their credentials.

But she doesn’t talk about how to respond when it happens to us — and that can be much trickier than when it happens to others.

For the sake of giving some specific context, here’s an example. Personally, I experience unconscious demotions most frequently in two forms:

  • I’m assumed to have fewer academic credentials
    • When I say I’m an anthropologist or a linguist, people ask, “Do you have an MA or just a Bachelor’s?” (I have a Ph.D.)
    • Strangers writing to me in a professional context address me as Ms. rather than Dr.
    • When I was teaching, students often assumed I was the TA rather than the professor.
  • I’m assumed to be a secretary or administrator
    • In every office I’ve ever worked in, any time I’ve lent a hand with things like photocopying or getting food for clients, those clients have assumed these things are my primary job responsibility. (The same has not been true when male peers helped out with those tasks.)

And here’s what goes through my head, every time: If I let it happen, I’m condoning it. But how do I respond without seeming uppity or arrogant?

(Yes, I said uppity. It’s no coincidence that the word has a long racist (and sexist) history — it refers to someone who doesn’t know their place. In other words, someone who has the arrogance to think that they are, and should be, equal to a white man. Let’s take a moment to remember that arrogant often has this connotation too: arrogance is seen as a much more forgivable sin in a white man than in pretty much anyone else.)

In short, it’s a double bind.

So what can we do?

  1. Make use of allies

I used to share an office with a male colleague, and one time a student came in to see both of us. She talked to us completely differently — and my colleague gently pointed out what she was doing: “Can we think for a second about why you assumed that she’s a TA and I’m a professor? You probably think she’s approachable, right? But that instinct that you have about her being more approachable than me is one of the ways that inequality keeps happening.”  In other words, he was able to use his authority to reinforce mine.

If you’ve got a white man handy to correct the error: great! It sounds like a flippant suggestion, but it does work — allies are incredibly valuable. And having someone else point out what’s going on is the safest move, because it protects us from accusations of petulance. Unfortunately, that’s not always an option.

  1. Preempt the demotion

In professional environments, I’ve learned to include my doctorate in my introduction. So I say things like, “I’m Jena. I’m a researcher with a background in linguistic anthropology, and I got my Ph.D. from UCLA.” By front-loading my credentials, I take away the opportunity for people to assume I have less expertise than I do — and provide a mental model for the future: someone with a Ph.D. might look like me.

  1. Make it impersonal

Even if someone’s wrong, putting them on the defensive doesn’t help anything. And it certainly doesn’t make them less likely to make the same mistake the next time. So I always try to make the correction as impersonal as possible. (I’m lucky, in that I’m often able to use my work as a sort of screen: “Since we’re talking about my work on language and status and discrimination, I feel the need to point out just how easy it is to contribute to this stuff, even when it’s the furthest thing from your intentions.”)


Wertheim’s article concludes: “As time goes on, our categories will change to better reflect the world around us. In the meantime, we can pay closer attention to our language and professional behavior — and make everyone feel as qualified as they are, and as included as they should be.”

But when it’s our own inclusion at stake, let’s cut ourselves some slack. If the double-bind makes it impossible to stand up for ourselves, we don’t need to carry an extra burden of guilt as well.

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