What a “Dr. in the Whitehouse” Brings to the Future of Work

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By now, you have seen the news headlines and reactions following Epstein’s Op-Ed article in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend. The article suggested Dr. Jill Biden, wife of President-Elect Joe Biden, stop using her Dr. title when she comes to serve as First Lady in the White House.  Dr. Biden has a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree in Educational Leadership.

As the twitter crowd was quick to point out, because of the time and the depth into the research and study involved in a doctoral degree, the person who earns one is entitled to use the Dr. title.

It’s More than a Title

I do not attempt to re-hash this topic, discussed in the media at length. But there is a more subtle aspect underlying the suggestion that the soon-to-be First Lady remove her title specifically for her new role of First Lady. 

I was struck by the story, in part, because I also have an Ed.D. Mine is in Adult Learning and Leadership, and I completed it mid-career (just a couple of years ago, in fact.) 

While I never thought much about the use of the title – it was more about the experience of doing the degree that intrigued me – I must say, after completing it, it became part of who I am (part of my “professional identity,” so to speak). My doctoral research gave insight into the meaning behind others’ professional identity shift to the future of work, but, inadvertently, the process shaped my own identity. This continues to influence my work as a Leadership and Organizational Development consultant helping organizations prepare their people for the Future of Work.

Most of the time, this works just fine. But I will admit, there are times when I pick up – however subtly – that the degree is not “relevant.” It’s those occasional times when a colleague in the field asks, “what made you think you needed that degree? My company prefers practical work experience to academics.” Or, a more direct, letting me know that my degree is not necessary to do a particular piece of work or project.

When that happens, I sometimes reflect on how to respond. Is it really possible to “set that part of myself” aside for a particular engagement?  

But rather than something “additive,” or something I can leave at home when I choose to, my doctoral degree is, in many ways, part of who I am. Like being a mother. Or a Midwesterner. Or someone who likes authentic people and strong coffee.

What Part of Yourself Have You Been Asked to Leave at Home?

How have you been asked, however subtly, at some point in your career, to essentially leave part of yourself at home when you come to work? Perhaps it’s overt – like in the example of being told to remove your “Dr.” title. Or maybe you have been encouraged to “neutralize” your accent to “better fit in,” even though your accent reflects who you are and where you are from. Or, perhaps it’s more subtle. I have heard young consultants describe how they are trained, when asked about their weekend by clients, to talk about “my niece” or “my nephew” rather than refer to stories that involve “my roommate” – to give the impression of a more mature lifestyle. Or the experience of candidates who have applied to work in another industry and been advised to “play down” their experience in a certain sector because they are, for example, coming across as “too corporate” to work in the non-profit sector, or vice-versa.  

Not Only About Education

Clearly, this is not only about giving reverence to educational credentials. The same would be true to placing value on the experience of someone who worked their way up to management from the shop floor rather than through acquiring an MBA. In the future workplace, there is not one single career path to leadership. Valuing formal education and valuing practical, on-the-job experiences are not mutually exclusive. Each individual brings their unique value to work, and each with its own combination of practical and educational experiences.

This particular part of the ask of the soon-to-be First Lady was what stayed with me most. It was the implication that her doctorate was not relevant to her role as First Lady, and the assumption that that part of her could -somehow – be left behind when she arrived at the White House. 

Not only is it NOT POSSIBLE, but it’s also not desirable for organizations (even the White House) when people are asked to leave any part of themselves behind when they enter the door.

Bringing Your Whole Self to Work

I’ve spoken over the years about the importance of “Bringing Your Whole Self to Work,” including in this Huffington Post article. What that means, in the greatest sense, is that each person should be able to bring all of who they are to their work environment. That includes any aspect of their identity, including their professional background. To propel ourselves into genuinely living diverse and equitable workplaces, no part of a person’s identity should be unwelcome.

The reality is, we need people from allbackgrounds and experiences to solve organizational problems and make the most of the opportunities for the future of work. In the Whitehouse, and everywhere.

So, the next time you hear, however subtly, that a Dr. – or any other professional – be asked to leave a part of themselves at home, challenge it. We are all better off if we bring our whole selves to work.

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