Monthly Archives: December 2020

The Problem with Ambitious Women

Why is a man “ambitious” but a woman is “pompous” and “off-putting?”

By now, I am sure you have read Joseph Epstein’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal mocking Jill Biden for using the title, Doctor. Many have called out Epstein’s article as a blatant display of sexism. Seriously, calling a woman “kiddo” is never acceptable, nor is poking fun at her dissertation.

What upset me the most about this article and some of the discussions that ensued was the assumption that the use of the title “Dr” by a woman makes her seem pompous, arrogant, or off-putting.

I would venture to say that all of us have goals, hopes, dreams. Yet, the hopes and dreams of women tend to be questioned and analyzed a lot more. This is not just true in academia. In the Catholic Church, a woman who feels a calling to the priesthood is said to be “misinterpreting” God’s will for her. One of the reasons given for continuing not to ordain women is that ordination is not a right, and that the Church is not like other institutions. Women cannot be ordained as a matter of social advancement. If a woman wants to be a priest, she automatically is power-hungry and confused. Yet, the women I know who have pursued ordination either through the Roman Catholic Womenpriests Movement or through another denomination that ordains women, just wanted to minister to people. Many of them minister to the most marginalized communities- the homeless, the afflicted, the people that we often wish not to see. I am not saying they are perfect people, but their motives are not automatically sinister because they are female.

I have been told numerous times that I am “competitive” like it is a bad thing. I have been asked why I am not smiling in running photos, with disappointment that I am instead being “unladylike” and trying with all my might to pass the woman in front of me. The story of my husband working extremely hard to become his class valedictorian and being determined to beat out the student who was his rival is “a great story” and “admirable.” His frustrations whenever he does not accomplish as much as he would like are “funny” and “cute.” Yet, my disappointment when a grade in college tanked my chances of graduating in the top three was labeled “ungrateful” and “too competitive.”

When I was working on my master’s degree, some men were turned off when I expressed that I wanted a doctorate degree. I also dreaded telling people where I went to school. A three-month relationship ended because I “wanted to go to school forever.” Yes, men like a smart woman but not if she is “too smart.” No, not all men are like this, but some definitely are uncomfortable with a woman if her GPA is higher or she achieves a level of education they deem “not necessary” or “not worth it.”

Now, let’s get to why I went for that doctorate. In college, I thought my theology professors were the greatest thing since sliced bread (not because they had PhDs but because of what they taught me). During my sophomore year, I approached Dr. Elizabeth Johnson and asked her if she would mentor me for a summer research project. She had never met me before, and I was not even a declared theology major. Yet, in spite of being one of the most well-known people in the field, she enthusiastically said yes (really goes to show how pompous and arrogant those women with PhDs are, right?) I did research and wrote all summer, and I thought I died and went to heaven. As a woman who cannot be ordained (see above), I was amazed at how the study of theology can help dispel dangerous ideas about God and the world (i.e. that loving someone of the same gender is a sin, or that someone’s cancer diagnosis was God’s way of teaching them a lesson) and help people discover new ways of looking at the Divine, beyond what they may have been taught as a child. To this day, I see my teaching as a form of ministry.

A PhD was a prerequisite for every job I applied for during my search. In other words, it was what I needed to achieve my goals. I never once thought getting the PhD made me smarter than anyone else (in fact, I often questioned my sanity during those 5 years). I do, however, think that coursework, comprehensive exams, teaching experience, conference presentations, publications, and a dissertation have given me some unique skills and perspectives, and speak to my knowledge of my discipline. I emphasize of my discipline because I have never once offered anyone medical advice, and I am quite certain that I am not qualified to do so (I do know some wonderful medical professionals in Boston though and I often recommend them to friends!)

That being said, is the world of academia fair? Absolutely not. I know that I had privileges along the way. I benefitted from being white, cisgender, and able-bodied. I benefitted from having two parents who were always only a phone call away. Even though I am still paying it off, I had the opportunity to go to a private four-year college where I received a lot of personalized attention, and where I learned that a PhD was potentially an option for me. Many people do not get that chance, even though they should. Getting into a PhD program is also extremely subjective and competitive. The same can be said for any professional program. 

My point is that yes, women who attain a PhD do have a certain amount of privilege. Some, of course, have more than others, and racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia are prevalent in academia, albeit sometimes in the form of unconscious biases and stereotypes (not that these are less harmful than more blatant acts). Some have had to leave graduate programs or jobs due to being treated poorly or not taken seriously because of their gender identity, race, or religion. It is also no secret that people from marginalized identities face greater struggles in the classroom. Many students are more likely to respect and accept the authority of a white cisgender male professor than a professor who is black and/or a woman (all the more reason why titles should be kept).

As a woman with a PhD, I almost never use the title Dr. To be quite honest, I do not know any PhDs that insist upon it beyond the classroom or formal settings (I am not saying they do not exist, but I have yet to meet any). In fact, I often forget that I technically can use it. My colleagues and I are all on a first-name basis. Friends, family, and training partners- everyone calls me Kate. Sometimes my parents call me Dr. Mroz because they are proud (they are allowed to be, they sacrificed a ton for me and did not have the same opportunities I did). As a woman who often gets told she looks like a student (at least up until recently, this pandemic has likely aged me), you bet I am Dr. Mroz or Professor Mroz in the classroom or in a formal setting, and I should not have to apologize for it. None of my male colleagues do.

Does this mean women in academia are totally off the hook? No. Let’s take Dr. Jill Biden to task and challenge her to use her position to address inequalities in education and increase diversity. But do not take away her title, especially when for so long, women have fought so hard for a place in professional programs. Do not make her be satisfied with just being “first lady,” a title that relates to the position of her husband. Becoming “first lady” should not have to mean diminishing her accomplishments.

No person is perfect, regardless of their profession or title. We can all improve. Let’s just stop condemning women for having the same hopes, dreams, goals, and aspirations as their male counterparts. Let’s stop mocking women for feeling pride in the accomplishments that their male counterparts can celebrate without question.