Most people have all encountered it at some point: referring to someone as Sir or Ma’am, and then finding out that they’re actually the opposite gender of what we called them. This mix-up can occur in person, over the phone or through electronic messaging like email or text.
It often happens because of not knowing enough about the person being referred to, especially if they have a unisex first name or an ambiguous physical appearance.
It’s especially embarrassing when it happens during your search for a job. This can be a turn off or even offensive to potential employers.
So, how can you avoid this?
Ask ahead of time. A simple phone call, a short email, a text message or even a quick visit can help you verify the identity of the people you will be in contact with. Finding out more about the company and its people ahead of time is always a good practice, and it helps you avoid any unwanted surprises.
When in doubt, use gender-neutral identifying titles. Write the name of your recipient using their title, instead of Mister or Miss. Certain positions can be used as titles for all genders, such as secretary (usually for government positions), president, director, professor, or doctor.
Remember to be gender-neutral during initial face-to-face contact. When you first meet the person you have an appointment with and you’re not certain what their gender is, stick to your usage of unisex titles. Also, limit the use of gender-specific pronouns when speaking about that person to someone else until such time that you’re absolutely sure about their gender preference.
Never directly ask a person about their gender. Apart from being awkward, it implies that your respect for other people is dependent on their gender. It also might come across as homophobic. This is definitely not a good impression to make, especially because modern workplaces are letting go of gender stereotypes and becoming more accepting of LGBTQ employees. You can instead ask what they prefer to be called, and make sure to follow it.
Observe how other employees refer to the person. They are colleagues of that person, and most likely know them personally. They will know enough about the person to refer to them correctly as either Sir or Ma’am. Only then will you be able to establish how to address the person gender-wise moving forward.
These same guidelines also apply when trying to create connections with fellow career-seekers.
Given that sexism at work is gradually becoming a thing of the past, gender sensitivity is an important component of a professional’s attitude. With these pointers, you’ll be prepared for situations when it’s needed the most.