Tracey Koehlmoos: You’ve come a long way, baby. Really?

Tracey Koehlmoos March is Women’s History Month in the US, UK, and Australia. 8 March was International Women’s Day everywhere. There are more women prime ministers, presidents, CEOs, and leaders than ever before. More women than men attend college in the US, and since 2008 women have completed the majority of doctoral degrees. However, for all of the talented, hard working women out there, in our everyday lives we are not quite there yet on a number of fronts. The one I would like to discuss is so subtle that it is the tip of a much larger iceberg.

I hate to complain, but it happened again. Last week when I arrived at a meeting at a super swanky, high profile government research institute, I sat down at a table at which every nameplate had a title: Dr Smith, Colonel Jones, Professor Johnson, except for mine which said, “Tracey Koehlmoos.”

I was the only woman in the room except for the young woman who brought in coffee.

This titleless name plate happens to me all time. It happened to me last in January at a planning meeting. More than seventy five people were sitting behind their title and last name. I spent two weeks sitting behind, “Tracey Koehlmoos.”

In 2011, the team and I launched Good Health at Low Cost. I was so excited that the book that the team and I wrote highlighting the glories of the Bangladesh health system was finally being released in Bangladesh. On the podium, it was me and five men all fifteen to twenty five years my senior. For the introduction of the discussants on the podium, the host introduced each man by title: Dr X, Professor Y, Captain Z, etc. I was the last to be introduced. The speaker said, “And Tracey.”

It was my book! I was flustered by the lack of courtesy while simultaneously mad at myself for caring. In my head I try to justify it as everyone present knew me, or perhaps that “Tracey” in that context was similar to “Madonna” or “Adele” in that it can stand alone with no second name required. However, when I am honest with myself, I know this is not actually the case.

All of my friends who are scientists and/or physicians and are women, know the experience of being the only woman in the room and can share similar stories. The punch line to the joke is always something like, “Please let him know that I called.”

With something like 80 publications, multimedia products, book chapters, and a documentary, I do not think of myself as a junior scientist or an intellectual light weight even if physically I am pretty small; but I recognize that I am forever being brushed aside so that an older, taller man can answer the same question, apply for the same position, or speak with authority on the subject. If the princess of Thailand asks a question about urban diabetes prevalence in Bangladesh, my answer does not need to be voluntarily seconded by a man.

In Bangladesh my husband once hosted a famous America journalist for dinner. Eventually, the conversation turned to health and the health system in Bangladesh. When asking about non-communicable disease, immunization, and then HIV, our guest would ask a question, I would answer it, and our guest would look at my husband for confirmation. Finally, my husband said, “My wife is the expert. I have nothing to add here.”

Lately, I have been reading a lot of the scientific literature on women’s integration in the work place. Particularly apt is the 1974 seminal work by Rosabeth Moss Kanter called, Some Effects of Proportion on Group Life [3]. It talks about the disadvantages of tokenism, or less than 15% of an organization being women, and the various titles or roles that women run the risk of obtaining through their workplace behavior.

Fortunately, I have worked for tremendous leaders who have set me on the path toward great opportunities, valued my contributions, and paid attention to the detail that I should be introduced as “Dr Koehlmoos.” However, I do know that things will not improve until I take a stand at least in a small way. It might mean saying, “It is Dr Koehlmoos, but please call me Tracey” after an errant introduction or even bringing my “Tracey Koehlmoos” name plate to the conference organizer during the first break in the meeting and pointing out, “It is Dr Koehlmoos.”

So, I wish everyone a happy belated International Women’s Day. If you are woman, keep up the good work and please let me know if you have found a polite way to manage this situation, or if it is better just to focus on the work. If you are a man, please kiss you wife, tell your daughter, “Yes, you can!” and thank your mother.

Tracey Pérez Koehlmoos is the special assistant to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps and senior program liaison for community health integration for the US Marine Corps.

The opinions expressed in this article are her own and in no way reflect the opinions of the US Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any other agency.