The Wall Street Journal, on December 11, published an article that has received major criticism online. The article questions the American first lady-to-be, President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill Biden’s credentials as a doctorate holder.
Jill Biden holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate degree in education, which has earned her the title of ‘Dr.’ After Joe Biden’s historical win in the 2020 US elections, Jill Biden came into the spotlight for being the only woman in America’s 231-year history to keep her full-time job as a teacher in a community college while serving in office.
Joseph Epstein, the writer of the now infamous article, doesn’t seem to believe in the honour of a doctorate degree.
A former adjunct professor at Northwestern University, Epstein ‘advises’ Biden to get rid of the title, calling it “fraudulent” and “a touch comic”.
He also belittles her by calling her “kiddo”, and “Madame First Lady” in what can be read as a condescending tone.
Throughout the essay, Epstein argues about the redundancy of doctorate degrees. He says, “The PhD may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally, at any rate outside the sciences.”
The essay has been severely criticised online. Jill Biden herself sent out a powerful tweet:
Senator and former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted a more scathing response.
Michael La Rosa, Biden’s spokesperson in the transition team, has demanded an apology for this “sexist attack”. Elizabeth Alexander, Biden’s director of communications called the piece “sexist and shameful”.
Although WSJ’s editor did respond to the criticism, calling it a “relatively minor issue” that was “overwrought”, the justification did no good.
Personalities such as Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.; Doug Emhoff, husband of newly elected Vice President Kamala Harris, and even the representatives at Northwestern University condemned the essay.
Women Are More Likely To Be Questioned On Their Credentials Than Men
Joseph Epstein’s condescending essay confirms what women have always known: they have to work much harder to be taken seriously at work. And there are studies to confirm it as well.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health reveals the gender bias in academic medicine. In the study, gender disparity showed in the form of “subordinating language” and in the “differential use of formality in forms of address.”
Out of the 321 forms of address that were analysed, the study found that males were less likely to use formal titles to introduce females (65.6%). Females, on the other hand, were more likely to do so, regardless of gender (96.2%).
In situations where a female had to introduce a male, formal titles were used 95% of the time; in situations where a male had to introduce a female, formal titles were only used 49.2% of the time.
Women’s credentials are often questioned, especially when they’re in positions of power. Thus, they have to constantly prove themselves by any means necessary.
Think of the cultural phenomena women have confirmed over the years: Manterrupting (men interrupting women during discussions); mansplaining (men explaining concepts to women under the assumption that they wouldn’t know about them beforehand); and the general experience of men getting applauded for the same ideas that women are questioned for. These result from the lack of respect for women in their professions. The social, cultural and economic barriers that stop women from getting ahead allow these behaviours to become commonplace.
Speaking of doctorate degrees closer home, according to 2018 data published by the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry, male PhD candidates outnumber female PhD candidates.
According to the numbers of that academic year, while there were over 72,000 male PhD candidates, there were only 50,000 female candidates.
While many women academics have noted that getting a PhD is a quick way to prove their expertise in their chosen fields, cultural barriers, especially in India, discourage many from applying for a PhD, to begin with. Many women are discouraged to pursue an education past a certain point, given that the ultimate goal for them is marriage; parents would not want to invest 5 years in an advanced degree as it can eat into their daughter’s ‘marriageable’ age.
All of this amounts to the lack of representation of women in academics, among other fields.
Thus, a title holds more value for women who have made their way to the top despite everything that is set against them.
Epstein’s dismissal of doctoral degrees is a small lesson in understanding misogyny and how men often get threatened by women who are confident enough to speak of their qualifications and expertise for the world to notice.
It’s important for women to come forward and speak about their achievements and accomplishments because the patriarchy discourages many of us from doing so. Ruffling a few feathers never hurt anyone, after all.
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