What to do when people don’t address you by the correct name or title? What if they make assumptions about your technical qualifications, your seniority, your marital status? These are issues which, sadly, women often still face.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. But challenging can be difficult in certain contexts. Here, a European patent attorney discusses the impact of this age-old problem in tribunal hearings, and what both women and their allies can do about it.
Everyone remembers their first time. The dry mouth, sweaty palms, the hours of preparation and the mountain of notes. Speaking at oral proceedings for the first time is undoubtedly scary. I spoke at oral proceedings for the first time at the end of January and was caught a little off guard by the Board of Appeal addressing me as “Ms” or “Mrs” during the hearing. This was particularly irritating as my colleague repeatedly referred to me as “Dr”, and the Board members nevertheless consistently refused to use my preferred title.
The EPO have taken steps to make their language more inclusive and notes released in advance of the 2021 update to the Guidelines make it clear that these now use gender neutral language. However, this does not seem to carry through to verbal communications, and many colleagues have reported being referred to by an incorrect title either at oral proceedings or on the telephone.
I worked hard for my doctorate and as a patent attorney I find that the additional technical knowledge and experience is invaluable. At the beginning of my career, I did not use the title “Dr”, but soon started doing so after being mistaken for a secretary at a client meeting. To address a female doctor as “Mrs” even if she is married is to imply that despite all her professional accomplishments, her worth is reduced to her marital status. Many female colleagues contacted me while writing this piece to say that they had been erroneously called “Mrs” by the EPO, despite not being married.
While “Ms” does not formally denote marital status, it is still a gendered term and its use can be controversial (see here). Interestingly, editorial guidelines for The Daily Telegraph indicate that Ms should only be used on request, and not “merely because we do not know whether the woman is Mrs or Miss”. Regrettably, this is exactly how the EPO uses the term “Ms” – to avoid having to find out a preferred title.
The French and German languages have evolved to have standardised titles for adult women which do not denote marital status; all French women are now “Madame”, with “Frau” used in Germany. However, there is no equivalent in English, and enforced standardisation by the EPO seems heavy-handed, especially when their own standard is not consistently applied in verbal communications. Moreover, this does not justify failing to use professional titles, like Dr, or to simply ask an attorney if they have a preferred title.
When I discussed this with colleagues, one (male) colleague asked why I didn’t correct the Board of Appeal. However, it is hard to do so without seeming confrontational, and when you want the Board to decide in your favour, it is even harder. I am not alone in finding this tricky, and an internet search for “how to politely correct someone about your name” brings up over 30 million hits.
It is often difficult to know how to be an ally for diversity issues but use of incorrect titles shows a lack of respect, and if you see a colleague being misnamed, you can show your support as an ally by speaking up. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, but this issue goes beyond gender and is equally applicable to any colleagues that are being misnamed or mis-gendered.
Page published on 10th February 2021
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Thank you for this. This is something I had a whinge about a couple of years ago after attending an oral proceedings where I was addressed as Mrs throughout. I am not married, and it made me feel quite uncomfortable. It got my back up every time the OD spoke to me! I have, over the years, accepted that the EPO does not recognise Dr (for anyone, male or female), and I couldn't figure out how best the oral proceedings situation could be fixed as I am not a fan of Ms either. As someone who has lived in France I was also aware that the EPO probably just assumed that Mrs was the "respectful" equivalent of "Madame" (used for all adult females) and "Frau" in Germany ("Mademoiselle" and "Fraulein" being reserved for young girls). Nevertheless, Ms or Miss would have been better than Mrs (for me), which is just simply wrong. Since then I have attended oral proceedings where I was addressed as "Opponent 4", and to be quite honest, I preferred that! Thank you for raising this, as I was a bit worried that I was getting annoyed over nothing. It is good to know that others feel similarly.
Thanks for your really interesting perspective on this and I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been to have 'Dr' completely overlooked in favour of a title denoting marital status. As a newly married, early 30s woman, I transitioned to Ms in my 20s as like the continental Frau/Madame, I think Ms should be the only title for women (unless they have a specific title like Dr/Prof). I do not wish my title to demonstrate what my marital status is, my husband doesn't have that so why should I? We are not defined by our marital status, neither men nor women. I am young enough not to remember any negative connotations relating to Ms or it being used solely for divorced women therefore I think we should positively encourage use of Ms, particularly younger generations, in order to normalise it and remove any previous connotations. Now don't even get me started on the number of firms still using "Dear Sirs"...
It seems that female titles in English are fraught with pitfalls. I was taught in school that "Ms" was a generally rude title to use for somebody and the only appropriate usage was for divorced women who were evidently no longer "Mrs" but couldn't go back to being "Miss". As a result, I still feel quite uncomfortable using "Ms". (By the way, your "see here" link relating to controversy around using Ms does not appear to work) There also seems to be a misconception among some German- and French-native-speakers that "Mrs" is the direct equivalent of "Frau"/"Madame". I remember being addressed as "Mrs" on a sixth-form exchange programme in Germany because I was over 16. That was very uncomfortable for me as an awkward teenager but my hosts simply thought they were being respectful.
As a cis-gendered woman with a gender neutral name, I generally get mis-titled and mis-gendered over email. I find the issue more pronounced when dealing with colleagues internationally, particularly where English isn't a first language. In these situations I don't mind at all, as I'm sure I've accidentally mis-titled people myself. But where it's deliberate, you're ignoring me when I correct you and you keep referring to me as Mr X, then we've got a problem. And the problem is you. In the past I've tried everything from passive-aggressively putting "MS" in bold at the end of my email sign-off, to highlighting it in yellow, to just ignoring it. I do find it safer to just greet people by the name in their sign-off: if you sign off as Emma, I'll say "Hi Emma" in my next email, not assume that you're of a particular gender/marital status. The other problem I have is being married but keeping my own surname. How am I supposed to title myself? I'm not Mrs (my surname), as that's my mum. But I'm not Mrs (husband's surname) either. So if I don't know, and as society dictates that my title must refer to my marital status but hasn't adapted to how we're no longer required to share our husband's names, how is someone else supposed to know?! Men have it so easy - it's either Mr or a professional title. Simples. I agree with Jay's post above: is the use of Mx for all of us too much to ask? Particularly now that there's a lot more grey area in how to address people, and how we wish to be addressed.
As an afab non-binary person, I empathise with this struggle. More recently in my phone calls to the EPO (where they cannot see my face) and emails, my relatively gender-neutral name and voice pitch means that I am quite often referred to as Mr. I actually don't mind this at all, because it is one of the few times I am not immediately clocked (incorrectly) as female. BUT, I spend a lot of time wondering how much of that comes from the assumption that name of indeterminate gender + works in high tech/physics side of patent law = must be male. How many female patent attorneys have the same thing happen when they DON'T want it? Also, whilst I am relatively early in my career so have not had a chance to appear at Oral Proceedings, I do genuinely dread the day that I turn up and that Mr turns to a Miss/Ms (or worse, a Mrs!). I think that, like this European patent attorney, I would be too wary of causing controversy by asking for a different title. Perhaps it is too optimistic to think that the EPO might start using Mx (pronounced "mix" or "mux") for everyone to avoid all these problems...? Then again, that might be its own can of worms!