Working in a "Dear Sir..." culture

Over the last five months with MakerGhat, a non-profit community makerspace that I co-founded in Mumbai, I have had many encounters with the “Dear Sir” culture in India.

If you’re a woman in a male-dominated industry, you have probably encountered the like at some point in your life. You send out an email or message to a hardware vendor, a startup team, management at an educational institution, or even a sales department. Two days after your carefully crafted message has been sent out, you receive a response starting with “Dear Sir…”

I have been called Sir on the phone (I wonder if I have a masculine voice), on WhatsApp (perhaps my display picture isn’t feminine enough?), though thankfully not in person. In some cases, my name is corrected to a masculine name (Arza and Azhar seem to be preferred). I can almost forgive responses from vendors, perhaps there are truly few women in this space (or perhaps they are working behind the scenes and have also been assumed to be men). But I was more than a little disappointed when the response to my request to submit a newspaper article started with a “Dear Sir”. Does this mean that women rarely submit newspaper articles? I find that hard to believe! Even when the person on the other end of line finally does realize that I’m a woman, rarely is the realization accompanied by an apology. The one time I did receive a rather sheepish apology, I was more touched than I care to admit.

As much as I try to ignore it (aided with heavy doses of eye rolling and sarcastic humor), thoughts about this manage to trickle into my consciousness every once in a while. I can’t help wondering, is it that I have a Muslim name that people (read men) are unfamiliar with? Or are they just too lazy to bother to check if it’s a woman who has responded? What is the excuse then, for being ignored during in-person interactions?

Yes, in-person interactions are not immune to “Dear Sir” culture, the mis-gendering is indicative of entrenched patriarchal norms. During conversations, men will often not make eye contact, preferring to look at my male co-founder even if I have more knowledge on that topic. I smile politely as some men ramble on with a slightly sexist conversation, not wanting to be the killjoy in the room and losing out on an opportunity because I refused to play nice.

Is it any wonder then that women refuse to work in such environments or adapt to be more assertive? It can be emotionally draining and disempowering. Thankfully, I have always been somewhat contrary in nature, venturing where others caution treading. The one thing that keeps me going is the hope that another woman after me might not have to deal with the same issues if I keep pushing.

Coming back to the issue of mistaken gender, I’ve decided to start mentioning my preferred pronouns, she/her/hers, in my email signature.

Now if only I can keep them from finding out that I’m a young woman. Oh dear…