Dear Sir

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

August 05, 2012

I am often asked by other female academics whether—and how—they should respond to the "micro-inequities" that many of us face in our professional lives. Should we object to each and every sexist remark and demeaning incident? Or should we just let them pass because it is too exhausting to respond every single time, and doing so might do more harm than good?

First, what are micro-inequities? They are the ways in which we are ignored, disrespected, or somehow made to feel that we are "different" (and not in a good way) because of gender, race, religion, or some other characteristic.

In my case, that means unpleasant situations related to my being a female professor in a scientific field dominated by men. Each incident in itself can be so minor as to be open to alternative explanations. ("Maybe he didn't mean to imply that the only reason I got the job is because they needed to hire a woman.") Complain about micro-inequities and you risk being seen as oversensitive and humorless, or as someone seeking reasons to feel like a victim.

And yet micro-inequities are real and, over time, can be discouraging, or worse.

I don't have a set response to offer that would work for every personality and situation. Nevertheless, how to respond is a perennial topic worth discussing (again), and I will start with an example of a seemingly minor irritation that I tried to fix as a graduate student.

Academics of a certain age will no doubt remember the golden age of print journals, when authors of scholarly articles received a stack of reprints from the publisher, to be distributed to interested readers. Typically, if someone saw your article in a journal and wanted a copy (but not a photocopy), he or she would send you a request by mail, and you would then send a reprint, perhaps with a short, signed note inked on the front page. Many universities provided postcards so that someone requesting a reprint had only to fill in a few blanks and send off the request.

After I published my first journal articles as a graduate student, it was very exciting to receive these little cards in the mail. The cards meant that someone out there was possibly interested in my papers and would (theoretically) read them. My excitement was somewhat diminished, however, by the fact that many of the cards were printed with the greeting "Dear Sir." By "printed," I don't mean handwritten by the sender. That greeting was printed on the card.

At that point in my career, it was not a revelation to me that certain professors did not think that we women in the field were as smart, hard-working, or motivated as our male peers. (Or, as a professor in my graduate department asked me, "Are you getting a Ph.D. because you can't find anyone to marry you?") But it was, nevertheless, an unpleasant surprise to see "Sir" printed officially on those cards. That "Dear Sir" meant that the people who created, ordered, and/or used the cards could not even imagine the possibility that an author of a scientific paper would be female.

I began to wonder what I, as a graduate student, could and should do. I was grateful that some people were showing an interest in my work as I looked for an academic position, but the "Dear Sir" cards offended me. I'm sure some people will wonder why. How was I harmed or insulted by the greeting, even if it was inaccurate in my case? Didn't I have more important things to worry about, like finishing my doctorate and getting a job?

No, I was not harmed in any obvious way. Yes, I did have other things to worry about. But I was concerned that, if all journal articles worth requesting were by "sirs," I would not be taken seriously as a scientist.

So I decided that whenever I received a "Dear Sir" postcard, I would include in my response a note suggesting that the sender might reconsider that wording and change it when the department ordered new cards.

Few people actually replied to my suggestion. But I remember one nice, apologetic note from a faculty member who had immediately gotten rid of all of his department's "Dear Sir" cards and placed an order for "Dear ______" cards. I also recall a few hostile responses, some describing in detail what the men thought of my request and what they thought of me as a person and a scientist. One professor wrote to tell me that my response had been a great insult to him and that I should apologize for implying that he was sexist. I don't know if he was sexist or not, but he was a jerk.

I was not the only woman sending these anti-Sir notes. Although I did not know many other female scientists at the time, most of the ones I did know also objected to the "Dear Sir" postcards. In time, the cards became less common for various reasons. And then, just as most institutions finally changed the format, the cards became obsolete.

The "Dear Sir" problem did not go away immediately. The postcard era was replaced briefly by one in which many people had electronic access to journal articles and could download them, but there were pockets of the world where such access was limited and where printed reprints were still preferred. The "Dear Sir" messages continued to arrive by e-mail for a while. (I still get some today, not as reprint requests, but as form letters from potential graduate students and postdocs who send out mass e-mail messages.)

Clearly, objecting to the "Dear Sir" cards made me a few enemies, but only a few. It did not harm my career. I felt good about registering my objection, perhaps because it was such a clear-cut situation in which an unnecessary—and perhaps unintentional—offense could be remedied. Also, I was able to object in writing rather than in person, and that made it easier for me, as I am not a confrontational person.

I don't always take action in these circumstances. As I have described before, when someone makes an insulting remark directly to me, my typical responses are (1) mild attempts at humor or sarcasm, or (2) no response. Humor can be effective in certain situations, but it can be tricky to come up with just the right words on the spot. I have gotten better at that with time, perhaps because (unfortunately) I have had so much practice.

In some cases, no response is a deliberate and effective strategy ("taking the high road," "choosing my battles," etc.), and I gain allies and respect. For example, at a conference not long ago, a male professor, on meeting me for the first time, expressed surprise that I was a woman. He had read some of my papers and said that he couldn't tell from them that I was female. I considered various responses, such as "Did you think they would be printed in pink?", but I noticed that the other men in the group were laughing at him. One told him that he was an idiot. He seemed deeply embarrassed, and I considered that the point was made.

Of course, there are other cases when my decision not to respond is not a strategy, it's cowardice. I may think about saying something but back down.

Then there are extreme situations in which it is important to deal directly and severely with an individual. And if a colleague consistently and deliberately makes patronizing or mildly offensive statements, that no longer qualifies as a micro-inequity. At that point, it is important to document those cases and get some help dealing with the situation.

Micro-inequities are a real and persistent feature of our professional lives, and through various strategies, should be combated. Your own strategy will depend on the situation. That might sound a bit discouraging (and vague), but, looking on the bright side, I know that if reprint-request cards were still in use, the vast majority of institutions that used to have "Dear Sir" cards would not have them today. That represents progress for everyone.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is