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Posted by Preethi Puram
I was one of the three Category Development Managers (CDM) in the division – the only female, the junior-most and newly promoted to the role.
A mail embodying the monthly metrics of sales and distribution from the data science department dropped in. It is usually addressed to the top-most custodians of all product divisions (CDMs), along with all the operations managers marked in the “CC“.
When I received this mail, my name was lost in a sea of other names in the ‘CC’ field. Initially, I thought it was a case of a simple slip of the mind. But it kept continuing for the next three months. So, I thought, a friendly conversation would make the sender notice the issue and fix it.
I called up the sender, who was a couple of levels junior to me and requested him to put my name in the ‘To‘ field of the email. I said, “I am also a Category Development Manager and if the mail is supposed to be for all the Category Development Managers, I need to be moved to the ‘To’ field from the ‘CC’ field where you have currently marked me.”
It took some time to even make the person understand the problem. He kept repeating, “I don’t understand, are you not getting the mail?”.
I ignored the inherent gaslighting in these statements and calmly persisted, “Do you have a problem with marking me in the ‘To’ field?”. The reply was a curt “No”, along with the disconnecting of the call. I felt that was a rude response, but I thought maybe it will get the job done. The next mail sure had my name in the ‘To’ field, and just when I was about to count it as a win, I noticed the salutation, “Dear Sirs”.
I was exasperated. I started wondering how this could have happened. We are taught right from our primary classes that the letter to the principal says “Dear Sir/Ma’am”, when we had to get the legendary ‘two days leave’ for our imaginary fevers. Even if the person was a total sexist and just couldn’t address me as Ma’am, he could have written “Dear All”.
I wondered if this highly educated person really had no sense of gender appropriate salutations. Especially when we are in a phase of discussing personal pronouns and prominently displaying them on places like LinkedIn, so that we don’t inadvertently make wrong assumptions about people’s identities.
Is it that these basic courtesies don’t apply to the heavily male dominated division that I was in and the poor guy never had to write mails to a senior female manager? I consoled myself that this person wouldn’t even have cared to change the body of the mail and must have just copy pasted it from the previous mail. I proceeded to ignore the issue and got busy with my already full plate of work.
The next month, the mail dropped in again, with “Dear Sirs”. I considered replying to that mail telling him that I was not a Sir. These two words were making me feel invisible even though my name was there in the ‘To’ field. I felt as if I was some imposter and didn’t deserve to be in a post that was firmly reserved for Sirs.
It was indeed true that I was the only female CDM in the decades-old history of the division. All members of the senior management were getting these mails but no one seemed to have an issue with it. I felt extremely unwelcome and lonely. I couldn’t understand why a couple of words were making me feel so small while I had a huge achievement of a recent promotion under my belt.
Organisations which are heavily skewed in their gender ratios need to understand that just tokenistically recruiting more women or promoting a few who decided to stick around for a comparatively longer time isn’t the only thing to do to promote gender diversity. They need to make sure that their female employees thrive in the organisation.
That can only happen when their policies are more flexible in terms of location and work-timings along with respect for personal boundaries, zero tolerance for sexual harassment and any kind of bullying. Again, just having excellent policies will not help if the other employees cannot get out of the “how can I report to a woman or why should I take her instructions” mindset.
I had a boss whose very first question when I met him for the first time was “when are you getting married?” with a weird grin on his face, as if saying, “so how long before you get married and ask for a position out of this location?“. I said I did not have any immediate plans but the boss kept staring at me with an incredulous look. Needless to say, I had a rather bad time for the next two years.
Coming back to my salutation dilemma, I told myself that doing something dramatic like reply to all with “Who is the Sir here?” will not exactly be taken well in this environment. So, I told my team member, who was at the same level as this sender to talk to this person informally and figure out what the issue was.
My reportee came back saying that the junior did not want to write ‘Dear All’ because the other two CDMs might not like ‘not being addressed’ as Sirs! So basically, it doesn’t matter if he entirely obliterates my gender and calls me a Sir but the he cannot risk the ‘Sirs’ getting offended by addressing them as ‘All’. Obviously, calling me Madam didn’t even come up, I was told.
I thought the whole business was rather annoying but I also had self-doubts when my reportee asked, “Why don’t you just ignore it? It is not a very big deal, I am sure nobody would even be noticing it”.
But then I asked him, “How would you feel if somebody addressed you as Madam in mails to you?” Some realisation dawned on his face. It is surprising how people don’t understand subtle sexist practices until you paint a picture of the reverse situation in their minds.
I realised that the only person who could resolve this situation was me. I decided to have a word with the boss of the sender of the emails, and if the issue persists, I resolved to approach the HR and suggest that initiate gender sensitisation for the large majority of the employees in the division.
I spoke to the sender’s boss, told him that it was bothering me and I would really appreciate it if it got rectified.
The very next mail had a ‘Dear All’. I couldn’t believe the kind of anguish I had to undergo just to get a small salutation rectified. But I was glad that I did not ignore it, stood up for myself and persisted until things got resolved. But sadly, this was not a one-off incident. I had to write numerous “I am not a Sir” replies to various people over the years.
For those of you who face such micro-aggressions at work, my suggestion would be to not ignore it. Not calling these practices out will only further vitiate the work environment and may even lead to more serious cases of sexism. Simultaneously, it might help to try engaging in a conversation about your grievance. Though the burden should not be on women to sensitise someone else, sometimes, it is also a matter of the other person never having been given an alternate perspective.
If none of this works, find the right channel/forum to raise the issue and persist till it gets resolved.
Preethi Puram is a Sales & Strategy Specialist at a leading FMCG company, with an active interest in making workplaces inclusive. You may find her on LinkedIn
Featured Image: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India