Why I am not going to call myself ‘professor emerita’

An ungrammatical term that re-genders professorship on retirement does nothing for the advancement of women in academia, says Wendy Dossett

September 13, 2023
Close up of a hand holding badge name tag reading 'Emeritus' to illustrate Why I am not going to call myself a ‘professor emerita’
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Having early retirement forced upon me this summer by a heart attack was upsetting. Among other griefs involved in leaving a job I loved at the age of 54 was a nagging regret that, after 28 years, I still hadn’t made full professor. After an unsuccessful application last year, I’d achieved a couple of relevant career goals and had been encouraged to try again. Now I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so.

Happily, when the topic arose in my pre-retirement discussions with senior staff, I learned that a proposal could be made to award me the professor title on retirement. This meant I would be emeritus – though I was aware that women more typically use the female styling, emerita.

Even in 2019-20, only 28 per cent of the UK professoriate identified as female. Ten years ago, it was a mere 22 per cent. Female-identifying professors are only just beginning to hit retirement in significant numbers, so the more of us who acquire this retirement honour, the better it will be for the women following in our footsteps.

The relatively low number of retired female professors might explain why, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been more widespread discussion of the gender implications of time-honoured post-retirement titles. Indeed, I wonder whether I would have thought about them myself had a professor at another university, Frances Knight, not pointed out to me that the emerita version is ungrammatical. Emerita is indeed the feminine form of the adjective, but the adjective qualifies the (masculine) noun – “professor” – not the title-holder.

Having learned that, I found myself reflecting not only on Latin grammar but also on the ways that gender has been salient throughout my career.

Any woman with a PhD will tell you that replying to the intrusive question “Mrs or Miss?” with “Doctor, actually” offers a joyous relief that never palls. “Professor” is similarly non-gendered – at least, not in English. Yet gender is, of course, not irrelevant even here because it is harder for a woman to become a professor than it is for a man. In fact, it’s harder for women to advance in academia at any level above graduate study. Although that situation has improved slightly, it has remained true throughout the three decades of my career.

I can see an argument for female versions of the titles “doctor” and “professor” that rank them higher than the male versions, since the obstacles in the way of attaining them mean they are objectively higher attainments. However, our language and social structures don't work like that. Feminisation tends to diminish. Not only do the terms “waitress” and “actress” indicate a diminutive deviation from the default, they also, potentially, sexualise. This is why, these days, there’s a preference for “server” and “actor” for all genders.

While a woman’s doctorate or professorship is objectively a higher attainment, if we were to indicate gender explicitly in the title, just as in other fields, it would diminish, not enhance. Should a female academic be referred to as a doctoress? A professorette?! While other languages might figure gender as integral, English doesn’t. So, if we actively deploy it, we also release all the toxins of gender stereotyping and inequality. Gender neutrality is a better way to go.

In the case of post-retirement titles, there are various options. I rejected the grammatically neuter emeritum because I personally identify as female, not as non-binary. To assume a “they/them”-equivalent title might seem as if I was claiming an identity I’m not entitled to. Emeritx, to my mind, is the best explicitly non-gendered option, but in a valuable account of her own thinking on the subject, published in 2021, retiring University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer J. Freyd pointed out that this term is also commonly used as a plural, which is why she rejects it in favour of emerit.

Yet I do not think we should abandon emeritus on the grounds that it is inherently male, as this is no more the case than “actor” or “professor” are inherently male. It just means “completed one’s service”, regardless of gender. So I have asked my university to style me as professor emeritus.

I worry that I might be missing an opportunity to contribute to a complete paradigm shift in how retired professors are referred to, as argued for by Freyd. I also worry that, in rejecting emerita, I might appear to be disavowing or demoting my female gender. I most assuredly am not.

My hope is that, in breaking with tradition and calling myself emeritus, I’m signalling that the role of professor is equal in demand and status regardless of gender. As Freyd points out, from the perspective of employment law, having the same title helps women guard against attempts from employers to imply that male and female roles in the same job are different. I also hope the minor shock value of deviating from custom prompts others to think about the way titles embody power dynamics that might need dismantling.

Ultimately, though, I look forward to learning what non-binary and gender-fluid professors will do as they begin to retire in numbers. Whatever they decide will lead the way for the rest of us in the challenging task of making language hospitable for all people.

Wendy Dossett is emeritus professor of religious studies at the University of Chester.

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Reader's comments (8)

Neither professor nor fellow is "masculine." Pls check the historical record. I was taught this by my female medievalist colleagues. How is emerita any more demeaning or ungrammatical than emeritus? It is not I write as a Professor Emeritus
Great article, I think removing gender from titles gives a freedom for women from the societal biases that still very much exist as Profesdor Dossett points out with her own previous experience of the title of Dr. Great article!
A non academic friend when she saw how I sign myself off always calls me Eee-meritus, either a Yorkshire exclamation or the university equivalent of a e-bike
Admittedly I taught myself Latin, but I would see 'emritus' applicable to both male and female holders of the title 'Professor Emeritus'. I've always hated gendered job titles so don't use them. A JOB is not gendered, even if the holder thereof identifies as a member of a particular gender. Hence mail-carrier, firefighter, sailor, actor, teacher, nurse, doctor (medical or academic), and so on.
This is a really interesting article, well considered and thought provoking. Latin is not a language I have ever grappled with head on so the potential that emeritus could be considered masculine was not one I had considered.
In the words of that great latin scholar, Tommy Docherty, "Perfecte libratum. A chip utriusque umeris."
Why is this an issue? This is not about 'gendered job titles' it is about language. This is bordering on ridiculous
To an anatomist, the prefix 'e-' may mean 'without', as in 'edentulous'. Of course, one could be edentulous and emeritus at the same time.