I wish titles did not matter, but unfortunately they do.
In a more just world, people would be respected just for being, not for having a particular degree or position. Alas, we do not live in such a world yet (we’re working on it). In the current world, titles matter. A lot. They impact salary, how much leave time you get, and whether you have a say in organizational governance. They shape people’s perceptions of you and can even change how you feel about yourself. A mismatch between your work and your title can lead to despair, low morale, and frustration. This is especially true when you are expected to take on responsibilities way beyond your pay grade or do work that you have not been adequately trained to do.
If titles didn’t matter, they wouldn’t exist — and people wouldn’t be so stingy about giving out the “good ones.” Some titles signal prestige, others carry stigma, and some are hard for people to understand. Years ago, when I told an admissions dean that I was an admissions communications specialist (my job at the time), they responded by saying they didn’t know what that was. Their reaction to my title stung me. I did not ask questions about their higher-level role, although their responsibilities could well have been just as vague as mine were in their mind (or more so). I should have, though. I should have challenged the unspoken belief that high-level administrators just don’t need to have their titles explained the way lower-level administrative staff do. It is easy to assume that the big-title job is well defined even when there is no indication of how the big-title person spends their time.
People with administrative support titles have to deal with more than just other people’s ignorance about the work they do. Administrative support and service work titles are frequently the subject of ridicule. How many times have you heard the slur “glorified secretary” or the dismissive “just an administrative assistant,” or the disparaging use of the term “domestic help”? And what cashier has not been on the receiving end of “I want to speak to the manager,” a statement of clear disregard for the frontline staff’s judgement? It is no coincidence that the titles secretary, administrative assistant, and cashier are used to describe work done overwhelmingly by female workers. Make no mistake that men who do this work get treated as “less than” as well, but in my observation men tend to be respected more than women, even when they do less prestigious jobs. This is definitely true financially speaking. Study after study has shown that women make less money than men across the spectrum of job categories.
And while I’m on this tangent: I get really irked when I hear people say that women’s lower financial wealth is directly tied to their overrepresentation in underpaid professions, while in the same breath putting the onus on women to change the situation on their own by pursuing “higher-paying STEM jobs.” Certainly women should feel empowered to do whatever kind of work they want and should not feel compelled to do the tasks that have historically been assigned to them. But shouldn’t society also be acknowledging everyone’s worth? Instead of encouraging women to go into a certain class of job with no regard for their interests, wouldn’t it be better to address the wealth gap by pushing for every human being to receive a decent living wage regardless of job classification? Society requires all types of workers, and not everyone needs or wants to work in STEM.
Back to the topic of titles. Titles open doors. The librarian title I have now will give me access to opportunities that I could not have had before. It feels strange in a way. Sure, I have more training now than I did four years ago. But I was well trained before I became a librarian. I had a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree with two majors, and decades of work experience, including experience in some high-pressure, high-stakes roles. By my managers’ accounts, I was a highly valued, high-performing employee. I worked well with people, provided empathic service to customers and students, was not afraid to take on challenges, and often did more than was required of me. But one overcast afternoon, years ago, near the end of the workday, I was sitting at my desk, when I had a sort of epiphany. I thought back on all the positive feedback I had received over the years from managers and colleagues, and took stock of where things were. I had just as much education, experience, and ability as some of those positive-feedback folks, yet there I was sitting four to six grades below them on the pay scale in a job that offered no real future. It did not matter how capable or hardworking I was. My job title was limiting my growth and earning potential, and it was not going to change without some additional actions on my part.
Lest anyone misunderstand, I did not become a librarian just to have a new title and a shot at a better salary. My passion for librarianship is real and decades old. Besides, if all I had aspired to were a title and some money, I could have taken the far more lucrative MBA route decades ago. I wanted to do what was close to my heart. But as a fortysomething woman of limited means, I did not have the luxury of acting on passion alone. I approached librarianship with both a strong sense of mission and a sober awareness of a need for a career that would offer, if not stellar pay, at least the potential for better pay based on specialization, and a credential that would be recognized by HR people anywhere. The MLIS degree was the bridge to the title that I needed to have access to different job opportunities.
Just as assigned titles matter, so do the titles that you give yourself. Being assigned low-level titles for years taught me the importance of having an identity beyond the traditional job. Writing is a big part of my life, but I learned early on that I would probably never be assigned the writer job title unless I claimed it for myself. Long before I got the communications specialist job, I established my writer identity as a freelancer and a self publisher. Being self defined has been empowering. It has made me less psychologically dependent on other people’s judgements of my professional worth and more mentally resilient during periods of job uncertainty. When I leave a job, I don’t leave my sense of self behind. I take it and my dignity with me.
Externally assigned titles matter for the reasons I stated at the beginning of this piece – namely their link to money, status, and power. But in the end all titles matter, and not only because of how they impact your self perception, salary, and clout. They matter because they impact how younger people in the family view you and how they envision their own life options. In my encounters with workers throughout the years, I have been amazed by how many people end up doing the exact same work their parents did. Ambition can be hereditary, in that we learn what is possible by watching the people around us. I hope that when my younger family members see me that they are inspired to educate themselves, take chances, and define their own potential.