The most powerful woman in the federal bureaucracy, Finance Department secretary Jane Halton, has been asked to stop using the title "Professor".
However, her department has indicated that the widespread use of the honorific over several years was the result of error or deferential public servants, rather than Ms Halton's preference.
And the secretary herself told Fairfax Media on Wednesday: "In my various roles I've been described as everything under the sun – 'Mum', 'boss', 'hey you', 'that running woman', 'Trevor's wife' and 'Charles' daughter' – but most people call me Jane and my official signature block simply says 'Jane Halton'."
The Guardian reported that the two universities at which Ms Halton holds the honorary position of adjunct professor – the universities of Sydney and Canberra – warned her it was inappropriate to call herself "Professor".
Both institutions have policies specifying that adjunct professors should not shorten their title, so as to avoid confusion with actual academic professors.
The secretary's official biography at the Health Department, which she led for more than a decade, called her "Professor", as did her Finance Department online profile, until a recent change.
She signed off her last annual report at health as "Professor Jane Halton" and many of that department's media statements use the honorific.
Even Federal Parliament's official record, Hansard, refers regularly to the secretary as "Professor Jane Halton". A spokeswoman for the Department of Parliamentary Services said the details of public servants who appeared as witnesses came from the relevant department. "Hansard accepts the details at face value and does not research and verify the details provided," she said.
A Finance Department spokeswoman said on Wednesday: "A very small number of instances have been identified where the department has inadvertently used the shortened form of the title on its website rather than the secretary's official signature block, which does not use the title."
The Abbott government moved Ms Halton to the powerful finance portfolio in June, making her one of the most senior female departmental secretaries in Australian history.
The public servant is widely respected by senior parliamentarians on both sides of politics, though her involvement in the "children overboard" refugee scandal in 2001 made her deeply unpopular among Labor and Greens supporters.
Former governor-general Peter Hollingworth's use of titles also proved controversial during his short stint in the role.
The governor-general, who held seven honorary doctorates, referred to himself as "the Right Reverend the Honourable Dr Peter Hollingworth". Universities generally discourage use of the title "doctor" by those with honorary degrees.