Summary: Jan. 11th, 2018 Discussion

Asher Cutter discussed “MISS MS MRS and MR: Titular self-identity in undergraduate performance”. Here is his summary:

We discussed the idea that inward and outward perceptions of one’s title might influence performance or perception of performance. I focused on female titles (Miss, Ms. and Mrs.) and conducted some exploratory analysis of undergraduate data for which titles based on higher degrees would not apply.

We began by discussing what different titles mean to people. An analysis by Lawton et al. (2003) of a sample of undergraduates and of an internet survey provided quantitative support for women predominantly electing to use different titles to convey marriage status. This analysis also showed that women who chose to use Miss tended to be young, suggesting that the choice of “Miss” versus “Ms.” may in part represent a proxy for one’s sense of maturity. However, only about 28% stated that they chose “Ms.” because they were single and only 27% because of their age.

We next discussed an analysis of how other people perceive different titles. The study by Dion (1987) that we discussed, coincidentally, was conducted on undergraduates at the University of Toronto. It found that people perceive women who use “Ms.” to have more “achievement motivation” and “social assertiveness” but less “interpersonal warmth” than do women who choose to use “Miss” as a title. A study by Etaugh et al. (1999) found that people’s perception of a woman’s sense of “agency” and “communion” also extends to her choice in surname upon marriage, implying that people judge women to have less agency but more sense of community if they change their surname to match their husband’s.

Given studies that demonstrate an effect of title choice on perceptions by others, we next discussed whether a woman’s title actually matters for performance. We considered academic performance in courses offered by EEB in connection with titles. In a set of nearly 4000 students, 48% had a title of “Miss” and 17% had a title of “Ms.” The ratio of Ms. : Miss increased among current students in year 1 to year 4. However, it is unclear whether the University sets a default title value, whether students choose a title upon applying to the University, or whether they have opportunity to change it. Moreover, students in year 1 and 2 include general life sciences students whereas those in years 3 and 4 are primarily pursuing a program of study offered by EEB; it is not clear whether the Ms:Miss ratio difference across years might reflect distinct choices among female students in EEB programs relative to other life science programs. In an analysis of cGPA among students in year 4, there was no significant difference among title groups (Miss, Ms., Mr.). Among 50 EEB courses, 3 showed a difference in the average grade achieved by individuals with a title of Miss versus Ms. (not significant after multiple test correction), and the difference was essentially zero in the largest two courses.

In conclusion, previous research finds consistent differences in people’s perceptions of the “achievement motivation” of women who choose different titles. However, our exploratory analysis found little to no difference in academic performance between women who choose titles of Miss versus Ms. Consequently, people’s perceptions about title choice do not seem to accurately reflect performance. While it is refreshing to see no obvious impact of title choice on performance, the potential mismatch with other people’s perceptions of performance could confer either positive or negative unintended consequences for individuals.