Female names are so confusing!

Posted: August 7, 2013 by Jender in But surely you're male

I submitted a paper to a journal, and it was rejected. The rejection was addressed to “Mr. [Myfirstname]”. I confirmed that the submission system had asked for my preferred title, which was Ms., since at the time I was still a grad student. My last name is also a common male first name, so I surmised what had happened. The editor, seeing my last name, had changed the title to Mr. and my first name (which is very feminine!) to a last name.

I emailed the editor–an extremely well-known philosopher in a major sub-field–to alert him to the error. His response was sort of jaw-dropping, though I don’t think he meant anything malicious in making the initial change or in his response.

He confirmed that he’d made the change, and that he suspected after he sent the email that he’d made a mistake. He went a long way to explain the review process and the steps the journal took to provide blind review. Of course, I hadn’t alleged any bias in the review of the paper, I had only alerted him to the error and given some reasons why this sort of error might be problematic.

He then wrote this, which I’m just quoting because I don’t think it will identify him to do so, and because it’s worth reading:

“In your case, for some reason I can’t reconstruct, I inferred from the email address that you were “[mylastname]” (a male), and rewrote the salutation accordingly. That was unusual. After sending the email, and deciding (upon reflection) that I had erred in making that change, I asked myself whether this was a potential problem (for gender-related reasons). I decided not, on the grounds that rejecting a paper I thought was from a male couldn’t be a terrible problem. Even when I suddenly realized that the author was in fact (probably) a female, she would see that the editor thought she was a male. It’s unfortunate to make any gender confusion, of course, but to the extent that the system is primarily devoted to gender-blindness, it’s not so bad to have THIS kind of error. For comparison, would it be so bad to have a system in which ALL authors, by uniform policy, were to be communicated with via a single uniform title, either always “he” or always “she”? I don’t think that would be so very bad. It would be better to have an entirely gender-NEUTRAL label, of course, The result would be somewhat similar to what transpired yesterday, in which an author’s true gender isn’t accurately or fully acknowledged. Maybe you would object to this system; but it’s a far cry, at any rate, from a name being available in the decision-making process and possibly influencing the outcome.

Well, you may not agree about the hypothetical system just described, but I hope you’ll understand that the error made was an “innocent” error, and not one that in any way compromised our system of anonymity. However, I do apologize, as indicated, for our failure to honor your request to be addressed as “Ms”.”

So I guess I was supposed to take it as a compliment to my work that it could have been written by a man! And the fact remains that it was more likely in the editor’s mind that a computer (the submission system) had somehow made a mistake (a mistake that *must* be corrected, apparently) than that a woman with my name had written the paper. This experience, though minor compared with other things I and my colleagues have dealt with, was deflating and frustrating.

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