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People Who Email Me Keep Assuming I’m A Man. How Do I Tell Them I’m Not?

Welcome to Survey Says, FiveThirtyEight’s advice column. In each installment, our two advice-givers will take a reader question, debate what he or she should do, and then survey a panel of people about what the best course of action is. Need our advice? Send us your quandary!

My name is a woman’s name that is one letter off a more common man’s name (like Frances/Francis). I frequently receive mail/email to Francis. Sometimes this is a typo, but sometimes it is a case of mistaken identity. Unless they’ve used the honorific Mr. or Ms., I don’t know whether the other party thinks I’m a man or knows I’m a woman. I don’t care either way, but frequently the other person does, particularly in professional contexts.

The obvious solutions aren’t available. My middle name is androgynous (thanks, Mom and Dad!), so including it in my signature line or address block won’t clarify matters. Using a photo has proven more problematic professionally than the ambiguity. Ms. Frances Smythe in my signature line would be too precious, and my proper title is Dr. anyway. Can you think of a tactful, professional way to signal that I am a woman in professional correspondence, when it shouldn’t matter but often does?

Further complicating matters, Francis gets more professional invitations than does Frances, but when people expecting Francis meet Frances or hear her voice, they do tend to be quite put out and nothing further comes of those invitations. In case you were curious, it does seem that Francis is considered more accomplished than Frances despite being exactly the same person with exactly the same CV. Mine is a very competitive field. My name is relatively unusual. I’m established enough that changing my name is not an option. — Frances

Morgan Jerkins: I feel for this writer. The naming quandary is under the umbrella of being-a-woman quandary.

I’m scratching my head over this one because she said that using a photo is even more problematic. Could she include underneath the signature that her pronouns are she/her?

Walt Hickey: On a CV or resume there are plenty of signifiers to include that can indicate gender, sexual orientation or race — for instance, “Member, Lambda Legal” suggests LGBT. But nothing comes to mind for an email signature.

Morgan: Ohhhhhh, I didn’t know that.

I’ve been mistaken for a man a few times.

Walt: How’d you handle it?

Morgan: I didn’t, unfortunately. I was too afraid to do anything, and it was really early in my career. I just assumed that that person would get it. It hasn’t happened anymore now that I’ve been more public with my writing.

Walt: This letter is compelling because she has thought of everything. I’ll come up with a solution and then she’s already thought of it.

Morgan: Right!

Walt: My only hunch is she could be Dr. Frances FeminineMiddleName XYZ in an email signature. Oh, wait: “My middle name is androgynous (thanks, Mom and Dad!)” So much for that.

Morgan: I think she should just outright tell people that she’s a woman.

Walt: On a CV? How?

Morgan: Is it too brash or inappropriate to include her pronouns on the page?

Walt: That’s a good hunch. My only worry is that the crowd who’d knee-jerk assume she’s a man given her qualifications is not the ideal audience for a pronoun disclosure. Brash, no, inappropriate, hell no.

Screw it. Fake second middle name. That’s all I got. Dr. Frances Taylor Jane Smythe.

Morgan: LOL. If that gives her peace of mind.

Walt: It sounds like the ambiguity is awful but fate has removed all possible exits.

Morgan: Right.

Walt: Perhaps on LinkedIn or a resume she could post some signifier — under college refer to that semester of women’s water polo under hobbies — if she just wants to drop a clue for professional contacts.

Morgan: I think that’s a good idea, assuming she has them.

Walt: But there is no good solution for an email signature that doesn’t veer into the unprofessional.

I am literally going to leave a fill-in-the-blank option on the SurveyMonkey Audience poll, because I am at a loss.

FiveThirtyEight commissioned a SurveyMonkey Audience poll that ran April 12-13 and received 1,128 responses. We presented respondents with Frances’s question and asked them what the best advice is, given the situation. They were allowed to choose only one option.

  1. Frances should include pronouns in her email signature.

    21.3%

  2. Frances should come up with a fake, feminine middle name.

    7.3%

  3. Frances should include a gender signifier — a hobby or club affiliation — on her resume or CV.

    11.0%

  4. None of the above is good advice.

    60.5%

Walt: We failed! We’re failures!

Morgan: None of this is good advice?! So she should just keep correcting them, then?

SHARE OF RESPONDENTS BY GENDER
RESPONSE WOMEN MEN
Include pronouns 21% 23%
Fake, feminine middle name 7 8
Include a gender signifier 9 13
None of the above is good advice 63 56

Numbers have been rounded and may not add up to 100 percent.

Walt: I think that Frances is in an extremely limiting situation and that there’s very little that she can do given the constraints she’s in. I think she’ll have to live with being Dr. Frances?

Morgan: Damn. We really did fail.

Walt: I mean, “failing to find an easy fix to entrenched misogyny in professional settings” should have been our expected outcome here.

Morgan: True.

SHARE OF RESPONDENTS BY AGE GROUP
RESPONSE 18-29 30-44 45-59 60+
Include pronouns 31% 19% 21% 18%
Fake, feminine middle name 7 8 6 7
Include a gender signifier 14 11 8 10
None of the above is good advice 47 62 64 65

Numbers have been rounded and may not add up to 100 percent.

Walt: At least we won over the millennials? Gender signifiers or the straight-up inclusion of pronouns did rather well among the 18-29 crowd.

The fact that there are no good answers for Frances says more about her environment than our modest advising abilities.

Morgan: Really good point.

Walt: We did give people a place to submit suggestions, and a lot of people said she should use Ms. Frances Smythe, Ph.D. Some said go by a feminine nickname like Fran. Some said use a pink font or email background. A lot said “get over it” or “don’t do anything; screw the patriarchy.” Some said Frances should lean into the ambiguity by using a first initial only: F. MiddleName Smythe.

Morgan: Pink font — now that’s grating. “Get over it?” Blech. And what will a first initial solve?

Walt: Yeah, asking people for suggestions was not always super helpful and sometimes reminded me why this is a problem in the first place.

Morgan: All this has a kind of “It can’t be helped” tone to it.

Walt: A few people suggested correcting people using humor or adding a LinkedIn profile to her email signature where people could see a photo. That seems like a solid approach to an intractable problem.

There was also a lot of encouragement to Frances from people who empathized. It’s little help from a career advancement perspective, but the person who wrote, “If others feel compelled to stop extending professional invites to you because they learn you don’t identify as a man, they are more than likely people you wouldn’t want to work with anyway” has a point.

Morgan: But a lot of people gaslit Frances by telling her this wasn’t a real problem or that the sexism was all in her head.

Walt: Nothing quite like the internet to remind you that people will say ridiculously sexist stuff if you don’t know who they are.

Morgan: Exactly.

More of our advice:

Morgan Jerkins is a writer living in New York City.

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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