Request for advice

Wahine writes:

I would very much like to submit this to the forum for help/opinion/suggestion (and I don’t think this is a unique problem, so maybe suggestions will help all):

I am organising an event which is advertised on our university website. Today I received an email: someone had seen the advert on the website and asked for further information. To my considerable surprise, the email was addressed to ‘Mrs. [my name]’. I checked the website; had there been a mistake in the conference announcement? No, the website reads: “for enquiries, please contact Dr [my name+email]”.

I don’t need to elaborate my irritation. I, and many with me, always use ‘Dr’ when in doubt. But clearly this enquirer (and it was a he) upon reading my name not only completely overlooked my clearly advertised title, but then inferred that despite working in a university I (1) would be most likely not have a degree, and (2) would prefer to be addressed as a married woman.

Here is my question: I need to respond to this guy (because I will invite him to the workshop). What do I say? My first thought was to let it slide – but shouldn’t I kindly point out to him what he has done/overlooked? What I would really like to achieve is for him to reflect on whether he would also have overlooked the title if I’d had a male name – and if not, to consider what that says about his implicit perceptions/ideas/biases. How do I bring this up though? I can’t think of any way really that is NOT likely to achieve the opposite of what I intend (i.e. reflection and progress) – and will just anger him/make him feel under attack. So my second though still is to let it slide. Any suggestions? Please????? I am sure I am neither the first to encounter this, nor will I be the last.

Incidentally, the enquirer is a lecturer in another university – which makes it all the more worrying. One really hopes that he does not let the same bias affect his judgment of or behaviour towards his own students.

Any thoughts, wise readers?

49 thoughts on “Request for advice

  1. How about addressing him as ‘Mr’ in your reply, but signing the email with your full title+name? He’ll probably notice and be annoyed by the ‘Mr’, and then (maybe) reflect on what he’s done.

  2. Hi Jender, thanks for putting up post!

    I thought about that but fear it might just come across as petty – i.e. me being insulted and wanting to insult him back. He might not even realise if I did that that my title was actually advertised and that he overlooked it – which seem important point (i.e. possibly indicative of bias). But maybe I worry about it too much…

  3. I say let it slide. If your response is verbal, don’t say anything. If your response is a written one, be sure your return address and signoff are clearly marked as Dr. (name), PhD (which I assumed, sorry if it’s a different designation).

    If you really want to get under his skin, address your reply to him not as Mr. but as Mrs. That’ll make him think. heh….

    But really, I don’t see what the big deal is. I know you worked hard to be called Dr., but isn’t it a bit….insecure to demand a title? Just a thought.

    One last thought…If he’s a lecturer at another university, it’s entirely possible it was a secretary or research assistant, writing on his behalf, that made the mistake. That’s the other reason I’d let it go–it may not be his mistake, so making a big deal out of it might lead to a hassle.

  4. Thom Brooks: with all due respect, it is quite different when it happens to women, and I find it amazing that anyone should have to point that out.

    Wow, someone who not only removes your preferred title and shuns the fact that you’ve done your PhD, but also feels as though they have the right to make presumptions about your marital status? And title you, not on the basis of your qualifications, but on whether or not you’re MARRIED?

    I wouldn’t be as kind as you, re: not wanting to “anger him/make him feel under attack”. What about YOU, and the way he’s made you feel?

  5. Many people are uncertain about whether to address PhDs as “Dr.” or not. He may have made a dumb mistake, rather than an intentional slight.

  6. If he is indeed “Dr”, I would suggest addressing him as “Dr” and signing yourself as “Dr”. That way you are making the point, albeit in a subtle way. And as was commented earlier by synaesthetik, he may or may not have written the thing himself – could have been a research assistant or secretary who wrote it – or it could have just been a dumb mistake as J-Bro suggested.

  7. I’d let it slide, but make sure I sign my name ‘Dr’. As Synaesthetik points out, the letter might not have been from the lecturer himself. When I was a lowly postgrad student, I had no idea that people were bothered about being called Prof or Dr, and once called a visiting Prof ‘Mr X’. He was annoyed, and I felt like an idiot.

    Synaesthetik – whilst I have a certain amount of sympathy for your worry that it’s a bit insecure to always demand a title, I take it that’s not what’s going on here. Profs and Drs are implicitly associated with men in the minds of many – even in the minds of those who are clued up on these issues* – and that’s a bad thing, since it feeds into various implicit biases that work against women, etc. etc. Being addressed as Mrs when you’ve made it clear that you’re Dr reveals this implicit bias at work, which is why it’s infuriating, and also worth considering whether one should say something about it.

    *Me, for example. I once phoned a Prof X, and when Prof X’s secretary told me Prof X was away, I automatically asked when he’d be back. The secretary told me pointedly, but not unkindly, that she’d be back next week.

  8. Hmm, I’m not so sympathetic as the others are because (a) I don’t know any lecturers who have someone else writing emails for them; (b) a lecturer is not going to be confused about whether to address someone with a PhD as ‘Dr’; and (c) she put ‘Dr’ on the website that he’d obviously consulted. And even if he somehow managed to obtain a secretary to write emails for him, wouldn’t it be good for him to know that the secretary is messing up in this way?

  9. Hm…Back during my (admittedly lacklustre) university days, all of my profs were open to being addressed by their first names, and most preferred it…. Took me a while to get used to it, but it certainly ruled out the scramble for a title of any kind!

  10. I’m personally totally fine with first name, and actually in favour of ditching all titles. But this is a situation in which Wahine used a professional title. The title was ignored and then an alternative title was used which is only appropriate if she’s married. That seems to me very different.

  11. In my experience, people often assume a woman handling correspondence is support staff; maybe this assumption survived the “Dr” which he might not have even registered. His use of “Mrs” further suggests a cluelessness.

    I think one shouldn’t assume he will remember how he addressed you, or will be bothered to check. I think you might quite nicely say something like, “You letter suggested to me that you assumed I’m support staff, so let me introduce myself as an academic; my work is in …; I expect the workshop will address some of these issues, and perhaps we’ll have a chance to talk about our work.”

  12. My advice would be to sign off your reply email as Dr. _____, as you normally would. (Never use both “Dr.” and “PhD” together – as someone else suggested – even for emphasis.) Put your position within the department under your name if it is not already incorporated into your email signature block. That’s all.

  13. If it was me I would simply add a polite note at the bottom saying something like, “By the way, its Dr. [Name], not Mrs. [Name] ;-)” and add a link to a website addressing the Mrs/Ms/Miss issue.

    I think the smiley face or something equivalent is important to show you are be friendly so he doesn’t just dismiss it as some angry person (the mood of emails is often easy to misinterpret)… and the link should give him something to think about.

    I think a lot of men simply haven’t thought about these issues… but as has been mentioned ignorance itself is an issue, so you should defintely try to educate the guy! ;-)

  14. what is worse:getting your marital status or your gender wrong? As i have an ambiguous first name, emails are usually addressed to Mr especially if i have signed of as Dr. And even if people know that i work on women’s history, they still address me as mr. i’ve long given up on correcting them.

  15. Dear contributors, thank you for thoughts. More are definitely welcome though! – for I still haven’t decided what to do and think it is interesting discussion. A few responses to the above.

    1) Thom, Synaesthetik, J-Bro. Thank you for all your alternative explanations. I though the ‘when in doubt, use Dr’ convention was widespread, but apparently not (thanks for filling me in Thom!). Same for use of Dr for PhD. Also I had not at all thought about secretary/PA option – thanks S! I think it is fairly unlikely given the UK situation and how the email is worded, but as the person is lecturer in a clinical school it is by no means in an impossibility and should be considered. Also another possibility occurs to me: maybe the person himself wrote the email but had been alerted to the conference and my email address by a colleague reading the website, and thus never saw the site himself. Only shows one should never assume to much – thanks for pointing alternative options out and I am glad I haven’t charged in (yet) unthinkingly and in full armour on my high horse!!!!

    2) let me just stress that the reason I am concerned is not fuelled by my own desire to be addressed by title at all. In fact, I prefer first name any day and never thought I would use my title. It is not on my standard email signature. Also I am not offended- I have no personal reason to care what this person thinks (though thank you for sympathy, Caffeinaddict! I was once offended (deeply) when a male professor deliberately called me Ms knowing full well I was Dr and intended it as a slight in an otherwise insulting email. If that is ok, Caffeine, I will take your sympathy to dab my wounds from that occasion. I was very very upset as I thought the person involved would write me a reference. So thank you. But that is a different story).

    3) Once again, and as understood by many of you), reason for my concern is that this occasion possibly reveals (and possibly reinforces) gender bias which, like Monkey, I sadly find myself both object and subject of. The worry is that (maybe) my female name elicited association with support staff rather than scholarship, which caused the reader to overlook the professional title. The choosing of Mrs is then yet another issue. If it was about me I would let it go, but I have a commitment to making this world a better (more genderbias-free) place in future. So that’s why I want to address this.

    Which brings me back to my problem; most suggested ways of responding mainly emphasise that I am a Dr rather than a Mrs and are more likely to be construed, I think, as correcting a (felt) offence to me, rather than induce inducing reflection on im- or explicit biases in the person concerned. And it is the latter I would like to achieve.

    Though maybe it is too much to ask to induce reflection on this. Maybe it is too big a leap and I know too little of the person to know if he would make that leap.

    At the mo I am swayed between either just letting it go or addressing him as Mrs. The latter would at least drive home the utter ridiculousness of making assumptions – but is also v likely to offend/alienate I think – which helps noone.

    As a side note – I never thought I’d use my title but have come to use it a lot as it resolves the whole thorny Ms/Miss/Mrs issue. I am therefore delighted if I can address other women as Dr, because addressing unknown women otherwise is a bit of a no-win situation: no matter what you choose, some proportion will be offended. Which makes it even more surprising that people don’t jump at the change to address me as Dr! In my home country, though, where there is only one title for women, i.e. the female version of Mr, I never make any insistence on using my professional title.

  16. Only saw 13-15 now. Keith, I like your suggestion a lot. Anyone has a suggestion for a good website?

  17. Unfortunately, I don’t have any great advice for how to address this particular situation. But maybe this event suggests that is a good idea for academics, especially women perhaps, to have their title/position somewhere in the email signature. Perhaps something like this:

    Jane Smith
    Associate Professor of Philosophy
    Some University
    Some address of Some University


    Prof. Jane Smith
    Associate Professor of Philosophy
    Some University
    Some address of Some University

    I have a “gender-neutral” first name, and I used to receive correspondence calling me “mrs.” or “ms.” frequently. (but not so much over the last 4 years or so.)

  18. How about simply adding a note at the end of your reply, stating “By the way, I use “Dr”, not ‘Mrs”, professionally”?

    More generally, I strongly urge all women with professional titles to include them in their email signature blocks. That’s one way of countering the tendency to rob us of our professional status in correspondence. I know insisting on being addressed as “Professor/Dr/ Dean…” by students and colleagues who don’t know us may seem exceedingly formal, but it’s still a way to make women academics visible. I suppose women tend to want to downplay their achievements so as not to make their male interlocutors feel insecure, since this can have negative repercussions for us in turn, but it’s still worth insisting on the recognition that comes with the proper title, even at the risk of being perceived as an uptight bitch. I have found that when people lower down in the academic hierarchy are told to address me by title, they frequently respond by doing so, but with a badly hidden ironic twist (“Miss smarty pants, are we?”, as one fellow passenger responded when I told him what I did for a living). Less anxiety-ridden people are happy to be reminded and acknowledge that they simply hadn’t thought about it.

  19. Re: Karen’s suggestion

    I have “My Name, Ph.D.” clearly printed in the signature on all my emails. I suspect it’s because I work in administration and do not hold a faculty position, but despite the signature I am routinely addressed as “Ms. H.” Faculty have done this to me as well as students. It’s a mystery.

  20. Dr H, sorry to hear about this. I’m sure faculty members suffer from some odd superiority complex that makes them overlook your qualifications even if it stares them in the face. I have heard similar stories from other Ph.D.’s in non-faculty positions. Maybe recognizing that you have a Ph.D. threatens their sense that members of the administration make up the servant class of academia, rather than a profession with its own standards or excellence.

  21. Maybe. It’s students, too, although perhaps they share similar prejudices/assumptions.

    My Ph.D. is in philosophy, by the by.

  22. For what it’s worth, I like Karen’s suggestion. While Keith’s idea of adding a smiley face and a link to further information would take the edge off the reminder, it seems a little too cute. Simply informing him that you use your professional title in professional contexts seems to me both direct and, well, professional. Also, including an url might actually come off as condescending. Presumably this bloke knows how to conduct research–unless he has secretaries and grad assistants do that for him as well–so if he cares at all, he can figure it out.

  23. You are most welcome, Wahine. Again, I agree with Jender on every point.

    A quick note for “caffeineaddict”: I never said that the case was the same for men and women. You should not have jumped to this (false) conclusion. I simply reported that I’ve received (and still receive) the same treatment. I did not say the cases of where this happens to men and those cases where it happens to women are the same. Nor would I.

  24. Any passive-aggressive way of pointing out his mistake to him is merely likely to induce anger on his part, rather than thought. I would suggest that you just write a separate paragraph, pointing out your proper title. Your handling of this in an adult manner is more likely to induce an adult response from him.

  25. In my first ever email to a professor as an undergraduate I made the mistake of addressing my english professor as “Miss” because while writing an email “Prof/Professor” felt too formal and I didn’t know the proper etiquette so I stuck with what I knew from secondary school – female teachers are ‘Miss’ and male teachers are ‘Sir’. She completely called me out on it when she responded to my email and I’ve been forever grateful for her calling me out on it and I’ve never made the same mistake since and always address any prof as “Professor X” in emails.

    Sometimes a calling out is necessary.

  26. I agree with the various suggestions of being polite, but direct about correcting him. I have tried the “indirect” method with students (visibly signing my name “Prof.” or “Dr.”, only to have them address me as “Mrs.” a second time.

  27. More specifically, I might say something like:

    “If I’m being addressed formally, the appropriate title to use is “Dr.” But please feel free to call me [firstname].”

  28. Another vote for 29.

    And Thom Brooks is clearly owed an apology. If you are going call someone out, caffeineaddict, then you have to apologise when you make a mistake.

  29. Disagree with #29. It strikes me somehow as the most condescending in a literal sense (because of the assumption of familiarity at the end).

    I think it’s best in these instances to instruct by example rather than by precept (which will at best come across as cavil and at worst … well, worse). Keep addressing your correspondent the way you’d like to be addressed yourself, and of course keep adding the appropriate title to your own name. It is very likely that the problem will be noticed and self-corrected after another round of correspondence.

    Certainly, the response email is not the place to school an invitee and peer about what his personal attitudes and biases or to push him toward “reflection and progress”. Save that for the upcoming workshop, if it must be done at all.

  30. Well, to defend my answer — when a fellow academic emails me and addresses me as “Dr. X,” I almost always say “Please call me [firstname].” It seems pretty rare, in my experience, for academics to continue to address each other as Dr. So-and-so after the first round or so. So, I guess I am always condescending (in, as you say, the “literal” sense). I am comfortable with that.

    Again, my experience has been, repeatedly, that people do not notice how you are self-addressing unless you say something explicit.

  31. Thanks to you all for sharing your perspectives. I have never minded Ms but always minded Mrs., ever since I was a kid working my first job, at which a woman joked, “I only went to college to get my Emm Arr Ess!” The other women standing with her laughed merrily. I didn’t get it and once home, had to ask my mother to explain the joke, — what’s an Emm Arr Ess? — and she said with a clearly nettled expression that this was once a common joke.

    The bare idea that anyone would subsequently use the “Mrs” title in reference to me after years of working toward a degree was forever tarnished by the comment from my mother’s lips that this was ever commonly joked. If it still has any recognition in North America, then I am determined to distance myself from this particular assumption, and regularly tell people, “Please call me [Name], as I have never cottoned to the title of Missuz.” This is usually greeted with a laugh but no further use of the title.

    It was an important learning experience to read as a college student (it never came up until Women’s Studies) that the widespread use of MS was a deliberate liberatory strategy of the feminist movement. It means a lot to me to this day, and I am very happy to be a MIZZ.

  32. jafp, when you extend a first-name-basis invitation, do you habitually join it to a pointed observation that the person has heretofore not addressed you by a sufficiently exalted title? I doubt it, but if you were to do so I guarantee the proffered familiarity would seem bogus and patronizing to the other person.

  33. If you read it with a snarky tone — and I guess you never know how someone is reading it — then yeah, it might sound that way. I certainly didn’t intend it that way. I really just meant, if you’re going to use an honorific, the right one to use is Dr. But I’d really rather you call me by my first name.

  34. I’m organising a conference at the moment, and have had plenty of Ms / Mrs/ Miss emails, despite the fact that it says Dr. on the conference website. I also had several that began ‘Hello dear’, which were my particular favourites. I too am perfectly happy to have people use my first name, but if people are going to use a title, I would have thought that Dr. is so much easier than marital titles because you can tell from a quick click on my webpage that I’m a Dr., but you’d be hardpushed to figure out whether I was married.

    The ‘hello dear’ emails I dealt with by putting a P.S. to the reply that said that I was sure that they didn’t mean to be rude, but that in professional academic circles it was considered extremely inappropriate to refer to female colleagues in this way, and that they should refer to me either by my first name, or as Dr. X if they preferred. The Miss / Mrs people tend to be dealt with according to my mood. I sometimes confer a similarly unexpected title upon the offender (Dear Baron X / Dear Viscount Y), which leads to a satisfying confusion for them (“I’m not sure how I managed to imply that I’m a member of the aristocracy, but I do apologise for any misunderstanding that I may have unwittingly caused”). But that may fail the ‘adult response’ criterion suggested above.

    @Thom – that’s weird about people from the US calling you Mr – I usually get referred to as Professor by people outside of the UK, esp. the US. Although I was an invited speaker at a conference recently, and whereas the older guy on the panel was introduced by the chair as Professor X, I was introduced as Miss Y. That pissed me off.

  35. Thom Brooks–Is it the “same treatment” when a male is called Mr and a female is called Mrs, when both are Drs? I’d say calling a male academic Mr. is comparable to calling a female academic Ms. There’s a second issue when Mrs is used as opposed to Ms.

    Dr. sounds heavy going to me–I’d say Professor X was the right form of address (but this seems to vary from field to field and place to place).

  36. Having suggested a tactic myself, I’m now wondering whether there isn’t a fundamental problem with the project, which is describe as this: “What I would really like to achieve is for him to reflect on whether he would also have overlooked the title if I’d had a male name – and if not, to consider what that says about his implicit perceptions/ideas/biases.”

    Anything one says could have a large number of different effects, depending on where the person is on the issues. Reflection might be one of them, but I’m not the least confident that it is a likely effect at all.

    It’s different when one is dealing with students, can build up a background, and so on.

    Just for one’s own satisfaction, I think the Dear Baron X approach would be fun.

  37. Yeah, there’s a new guy who uses ‘dear’ within the email (“So do not worry, dear, I will provide my own food’. ‘Thank you, dear, for your reply’.) I suspect this is a language issue (he’s a non-native English speaker) so I probably won’t subject him to my Cross Voice just yet. Then again, I expect it’s better to correct these things via email than to do it in person later on – when it’s genuinely a cultural misunderstanding, the offender tends to be very embarrassed when you point it out, and it thus seems kinder to do it early on. But when it’s someone who should know better, it’s often more fun to correct them in person (I tend to look round wildly when I’m addressed as Miss (even if I’m the only person / woman in the room), and then say, in a tone of utter bewilderment, ‘Oh, do you mean *me*?! Gosh. I’m sorry. It’s just that nobody ever calls me ‘Miss’ anymore. I’m really not used to it.’ That normally does the trick.)

  38. Trolleydolly – you’ve got your tactics nailed! Brilliant!
    I esp. like your way of dealing with being called ‘miss’ in person. I will steal that strategy.

  39. This is a terrific set of comments. One thing that occurred to me while reading through is that, of course, people sometimes mistake female professors for support staff. This was mentioned in comment #12, by jj. I’m currently in grad school, finishing my dissertation, and my husband is looking for a job to tide us over until I can get a full-time position. He’d make a terrific administrative assistant, but can’t get a foot in the door because he’s male. I think there’s a norm here that’s really bad for both men and women. Men are kept out of jobs that they could do well at and find satisfying; while women who don’t hold jobs that are stereotypical women’s work struggle to be acknowledged by their peers.

  40. Jean K – No, I don’t for a moment think that a man being called “Mr” and a woman “Mrs” when each is “Dr” is the same thing. Nor have I said this.

  41. […] August 13, 2010 Filed under: language — Jender @ 7:33 pm Remember a few days ago, when a reader wanted some advice regarding what to do when people use the wrong title? You might be wondering what happened as a result of all your excellent advice. Well, now we know: I […]

  42. It would be tempting to address the response the same way the initial request was addressed; it would certainly get the reader’s attention, but probably would not successfully deliver the message. I would simply sign the responsive email the way you wish to be addressed. If it happened a second time with the same individual, I would address it directly.

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