It’s the 21st Century, so why are a majority of workplace emails still addressed ‘Dear Sirs’? Catherine Gleave discusses why women aren’t being acknowledged, and the forces of exclusion at play.
It takes a surge of self-restraint to stop myself from banging my head against the desk. My frustration, drawn out by the regularity of this occurrence, is the direct result of another “Dear Sirs” email flying into my inbox. This time, a paralegal named Amy is the culprit:
Please add me to your list of delegates for your upcoming seminar.
The compulsion to smash my head into the keyboard at 2pm in the afternoon is not an unusual response to this kind of cold-calling. As sole proprietor of the company’s RSVP mailbox I receive, on average, over 100 emails each day—40% of which opt for “Dear Sirs”. Worryingly, the vast majority of which— and part of the reason I’m compelled to collide with medium plywood— come from women.
As a woman within professional services, one of the biggest sectors globally, I should be no enigma. At 24-years-old, I’m fortunate enough to be part of the third wave of women to infiltrate traditionally male spaces. I feel lucky that I’m there to celebrate the successes of girlfriends in the Magic Circle; to know women occupying roles in the Civil service; and that I directly report to a female CEO. Because of all this, Amy’s email jars. I’m forced to ask the question: do you think I’m not here, or do you wish I wasn’t?
I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to rationalise Amy’s decision to use “Dear Sirs”, and have wrestled with a variety of possible reasons for her choice. Each time, no matter how many times I repeat the mantra: “it doesn’t mean anything” inevitably, I return to the unavoidable and awkward truth, that actually, it really does.
I’ve grown up believing in the power of the girl gang, and have sought out role models who champion and build up other women. From the rise of inclusive brands like Fenty Beauty and Hailee Steinfeld singing about “Most Girls” to Angela Merkel’s re-election, and the urgency of Trans rights becoming a reality, we’re living through a renaissance of true girl power. As a result, “Dear Sirs” feels all the more regressive. To the point where, when uttered three times, the patriarchy will materialise, in the manner of Beetlejuice, and beat the recipient over the head with a corset and The Ladies Book of Etiquette.
It’s a phrase loaded with implications of singularity, and concedes that masculine is normative; at best Amy is exhausted, at worst she’s complicit in endorsing a mechanism that perpetuates female otherness. This is where the problem begins: “Dear Sirs” implies a kind of indignant, tin-can loneliness and a picture of a nomadic woman howling into the void, rather than a woman on the hunt for female allies.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see why women, when confronted with overtly masculine environments, want to write their femininity out of the conversation. In particularly competitive work situations, female-ness is too often synonymous with tokenism, and questions of gender often lead to accusations of being “the Equality and Diversity hire”.
Throughout history, women have been put to task over their femininity, and too often we have been forced to buckle to societal pressure to reshape our female-ness into something more knowable— more masculine—in order to simply do our jobs. The irony of the Iron Lady “not for turning” turning on her femininity is potent; her adoption of a lower octave when speaking to Parliament crystallised the idea that only the masculine form is acceptable, and that a feminine voice has no place in politics if you want to get anything done.
While female visibility is increasing in professional spaces, fundamentally there is still a long way to go. From the yawning pay gap, and US maternity leave rights, to issues of psychology and the right to take up space, women are constantly bombarded by obstacles and pressures enough to make even the most Girl Power of professionals feel disheartened. As a result, it’s almost understandable that most of us would want to circumvent these pressures whenever possible by giving up the feminine…
It’s almost impossible to be submersed in a way of life without picking up some idiosyncrasies along the way and “Dear Sirs” is the ultimate zeitgeist with which to whitewash women from our workplaces. In working cultures where tokenism is still rife, I feel compelled to ask the question: If all women are islands, is it only a matter of time before we all go native?
As one of two women in an office of 30, there have been times when I have sought solidarity from my female colleague and found none. To my horror and amazement, in moments where male colleagues have engaged in “locker room talk” she’s been right there with them, bent over a computer screen asking: “How big are her tits?”; “Would you sleep with her?”
And that isn’t to say that I haven’t been found culpable of island behaviour myself.
Last week I was invited by an older male colleague to compose an email for him. After the main body of the work was done, we came onto the finishing touches, which included the salutation. Still smarting from Amy’s email, I suggested we use “Dear Sir/Madam”. I’m greeted with a half-smile and the utterance: “Gender fluid, are we?” And I laughed. In that moment, I took the path of least resistance and blended in. I choked down the “fuck you” that was in my mouth and became one of the boys. The unpalatable truth is that I needed him to like me so I did what I needed to do. And in that moment, responding like a woman didn’t feel like the right response.
Examples like this showcase just how “other” the feminine remains. There’s a real risk that while we continue to operate within a broken system, that we subconsciously ask both CiS and Trans women to evade their gender, in order to showcase their professional worth and skill set. When I’ve been sat in my office, unable to engage with the chat my male colleagues are absorbed in, I’ve felt my tokenism gnawing at me like a mosquito bite. For a second of my day, each day, I laugh at how tragically easy it all might have been if I had been born a Carl and not a Catherine…
While even women feel compelled, or indeed feel that it’s remotely necessary, to use the term “Dear Sirs” in their professional lives, female working will remain pejorative and the problem will persist. Although it is vital to continue to encourage women to lean in to their careers, there is a gap between empowering women to usurp a system entrenched in masculine norms, and inviting women to work within it. Ultimately, there’s an immense risk in asking women to lean in when the overriding culture is still one of tokenism, because in order to survive, the associated risks can often result in increased marginalisation. Feeling like “one of the boys” sometimes feels like survival.
When we ask that women function within a system which already has us on the back-foot by virtue of our birth, in the majority of cases we risk advocating for women to deride their own femininity in order to get ahead. Female alliance is a powerful thing, and in the working world, it is absolutely necessary for women to say “I am a woman, and I am here” not just for yourself, but for all the women who went before you and will come after.
So while the future remains unclear, one thing’s for certain; never, ever, call me Sir.
Follow Catherine on Twitter: @CatherineGleave
Illustration: Camilla Ackley