Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Dear Sir

Power of WordsToday’s post is again about application season. It comes from another WomanOfScience, and discusses an issue of sexism that applications should consider when submitting materials for graduate studies, postdocs, or faculty jobs. Enjoy the post! Remember that you can follow this blog by clicking the +Follow button.

It’s academic job application season and search committees are busy poring over applications to find the best candidates. As a repeat member of my department search committees, I am always surprised at how many cover letters are addressed as, “Dear Sir,” or “Dear Sirs.” Is it so inconceivable that there are women on the search committee or should their input just be deliberately ignored? Does the idea of a woman evaluating your application fill you with revulsion or fear? This bad habit of addressing letters only to my male colleagues is especially ridiculous given the goal, or in some places, the mandate, of gender balance or proportional representation on search committees.

Do people write “Dear Sir” because it is tradition? There are many traditions we have abandoned because they are sexist or exclusionary, or just because there are better ways to do things. How many people addressing their cover letters with “Dear Sir” are still characterizing organic compounds with a continuous wave NMR? You perform up-to-date experiments and theory, why not update your attitude about letter writing?

You might say, well, how else to address a letter to a group of people who are unknown to you? Here are some options: Find out who the chair of the search committee is and address your letter to that person. Or address your letter as, “Dear Search Committee” or “Dear Colleagues.”

I regularly receive letters of application to work in my lab, which are addressed only to me, with the salutation “Dear Sir.” I am a woman. Those get deleted or recycled immediately. Why would I hire someone who is not observant enough to figure out I am female? That doesn’t exactly indicate future success in science. Furthermore, why would I hire someone so unprofessional as to address a letter clearly meant for one person, who is known, with a generic salutation like “Dear Sir”?

We have to stop thinking of the default scientist as male. To examine your own implicit biases, you can take the Harvard Implicit Bias test at: http://implicit.harvard.edu. We all have biases. To overcome them, we need to be aware of them.

I have colleagues who don’t read the cover letters, preferring only to count up publications and evaluate the research statement and reference letters. I read the cover letter first. Cover letters generally give the committee members a good sense of what the candidate is like as a person, what they value by what they choose to highlight and how they describe it. Unfortunately in the case of candidates addressing their cover letters as “Dear Sir,” the sense I get of them is easily summed up as: “sexist.”

So, what do you think?  Post or comment!

Comments on: "Dear Sir" (3)

  1. I think this is a great point that you have to be careful in how you address someone in your cover letter and to not come off sexist; however, I quickly just googled “dear sirs” to se what came up. Apparently there are a lot of people who consider that to include women. I find it strange that they believe this but I saw that many people believe this is a way not to step on someone’s toes with the sexist issue that we see so often in science. I personally always say “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam”. Overall I think you bring up a great point and agree with you completely. The only point I would make is that they might not be “sexist”, but just sadly informed if they go on google looking for answers and don’t read carefully.

  2. […] be a woman, and she will be mad if you say “dear sir” (don’t believe me, see this post). 2. “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” is impersonal. It sounds like you are […]

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