4 Ways to Handle Gender-Ambiguous Names

4 Ways to Handle Gender-Ambiguous Names

by Kerry Scott on 5 October 2009


Every so often, I hear from a reader about how to address a cover letter to someone when they can’t tell whether the person is male or female.  Judging by my kindergartener’s classmates’ names, this problem is only going to grow as those Dakotas and Jordans grow up (although she has one classmate whose first name is “Sir Michael.”  Not Michael.  “Sir Michael.”  So I guess that cover letter pretty much addresses itself.).

Since I actually have one of those ambiguous first names, I think I’ve pretty much seen every possibility.  Here are some ways you can handle this:

  1. Use the first name. I know there are a few dinosaurs left who can’t stand to be addressed by their first names.  In my experience those are the sorts of people who are going to find a way to be offended no matter what you do.  Using the first name is the solution I’ve seen most often, and I always figured it was either because it’s 2009 and not 1909, or because they can’t figure out what to call me (and my last name is also a challenge for people, so I feel sorry for anyone trying to send me anything).
  2. Use the full name. I also get a fair amount of mail addressed to “Dear Kerry Sandberg Scott.”  I’m not sure this is the most elegant solution, but it works (and you get to show me that you can spell all three of my names, so bonus points for that).
  3. Use “Dear Mr./Ms. Surname” Anyone with a gender-neutral name is used to this.  It’s not a big deal.  You’re not going to offend them by telling them that their name is gender-neutral.  They already know.  (Clue:  Women with two last names are not called Mrs., unless their husbands are running for office.  Don’t call a two-last-name chick Mrs.  If she went to the trouble to keep her own surname, it’s very likely that she’s not the sort of person who enjoys being called Mrs.  It’s Ms. Trust me on this.)
  4. Google. Sometimes you’re stumped because the name can go either way, but other times, it’s because the name is completely foreign to you.  In these cases, sometimes it helps to Google.  If all of the references to the name say “she,” there’s your answer.  I’ve also used Facebook to search for a first name.  For example, if you search the name “Hjalmer,” you’ll find that everyone with that first name on Facebook has a picture of a guy (it’s also a surname sometimes, but mostly it’s a Scandinavian male first name).

Bottom line—don’t sweat this too much.  On behalf of people with names like “Kerry” everywhere, we’re used to it, and only the weeniest among us care that much if you get the gender right on the cover letter.  In fact, to be honest, I don’t always notice what they call me.  I’m just happy they bothered to include a cover letter at all.

Photo by Mo Kaiwen

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Julie O'Malley October 5, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Well said, sir :)

I would just like to add that I would (mildly) resent being called “Mrs.” in a cover letter, even though I am married and use my husband’s surname. In my book, “Ms.” is the ONLY appropriate title for any woman in the workplace, unless she has explicit instructed you to call her Mrs.

Kerry Sandberg Scott October 5, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I totally agree. I had never met anyone who voluntarily went by Mrs. until I moved to Wisconsin…but there are lots of them here. Maybe it’s a regional thing. All I know is that I am not a Mrs., anytime, ever.

Sabrina October 5, 2009 at 4:57 pm

I agree with Julie. I liked being Mrs. for all of about 6 months of being married and now I hate it and only use Ms.

GeekChic October 5, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Guess I’m a dinosaur (an under 40 one at that!) – but I truly dislike people using my first name if I don’t know them from Adam. It feels fake familiar. I try to not let it show however since it seems that this is the “new normal”.

I was raised to address people as Sir or Ma’am until told otherwise (my bosses and colleagues find this charming, so I’m told). Even then it’s usually Mr. or Ms. such and so unless I’m told I can use their first name. In a letter it’s Dear Sir/Madam if I don’t know the gender, Dear Mr. or Dear Ms., if I do.

Entertainingly, I often get asked if I am from the Southern U.S. (nope – Canadian, thanks) or if I am former military (yes – but I was doing the Sir / Ma’am thing as a child).

Ask a Manager October 5, 2009 at 6:44 pm

I get cover letters addressed to me as “Mrs.” all the time, and it does mildly irritate me. Not like I’d reject an application over it, but I do notice every time and wonder why the person made that assumption.
.-= Ask a Manager´s last blog ..saying thank-you after getting job rejection feedback =-.

abdpbt October 5, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Sir Michael? Really? You’ve got to admire the fact that not one but two parents signed off on that.
.-= abdpbt´s last blog ..18 Things That Happened While You Were In “Exile” =-.

Melissa October 5, 2009 at 11:25 pm

One thing I learned while writing appeal letters for a nonprofit was to write “M.” as a gender-neutral prefix (as in “Dear M. [last name]“). I think it could work for cover letters, too.
.-= Melissa´s last blog ..Authenticity in the Job Search =-.

Tim G October 6, 2009 at 6:45 am

“Jaden” is another one that seems to be gaining popularity in either gender. I wonder waht Sir Michael’s parents had planned for a girl’s name?
.-= Tim G´s last blog ..6 Ways to Safeguard Your Eyes =-.

class factotum October 6, 2009 at 9:03 am

Geek, I am with you on first names. I call my friends’ parents Mr or Mrs unless invited to use their first names. I expect children to call me “Mrs Factotum,” and was annoyed when my neighbor introduced me to her fourth grader as “Class.” “Miss Class” is a nice southern compromise. I do not want the 19-yr-old receptionist at the doctor’s office to yell out, “Class!” without even lifting her head. I expect to be addressed as “Mrs (or Ms) Factotum” by someone young enough to be my daughter.

And don’t call me “Dude.”
.-= class factotum´s last blog ..Marriage 201, Lecture 47: They say it’s your birthday, or, Gold-digger again =-.

Steph McDonald October 6, 2009 at 9:07 am

Oh..Kerry, I’d love to see a post about cover letters. I can never decide if I like them or not. I think it all depends on if they even remember to change my name or my company name from the last time they used the cover letter to apply at another company.

Kerry Sandberg Scott October 6, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Steph—I’ve got a whole bunch on cover letters: http://www.cluewagon.com/tag/cover-letter/

I’m a fan. I like knowing if people are literate. There are few jobs for which literacy isn’t a plus, and a cover letter tells me whether you can form a sentence or not. I like that. When recruiters say they don’t read cover letters, I’m hugely annoyed. How can they justify discarding half of the information they’ve received to help them make a decision on whether this candidate is a good fit for the job? If you had a doctor who said, “I only listen to the second half of the symptoms people describe,” you’d get a new doctor.

Oh, I could rant on that all day.

GeekChic and Class Factotum—Okay, perhaps dinosaur wasn’t the most tactful word choice (although my children like dinosaurs so much that it’s pretty much a compliment at my house). I’m the opposite though. When people call me Ms. Sandberg Scott (especially in person…I understand it in a letter), it feels fake-formal to me. I don’t care for it at all.

The exception (for me) is teachers. My kid’s kindergarten teacher is called Ms. Smith by her students, but when she calls me and says, “This is Jane Smith,” I have to stop and think. Even in my head, she’s Ms. Smith (which is funny because she’s almost young enough to be my daughter).

class factotum October 6, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Kerry — I don’t mind being a dinosaur. :)

PS Yes, my dad was career military, why do you ask?
.-= class factotum´s last blog ..Marriage 201, Lecture 47: They say it’s your birthday, or, Gold-digger again =-.

GeekChic October 6, 2009 at 9:57 pm

I don’t mind being a dinosaur either (glad to know I’ll have company).

That said, I can see how someone might find the manners I was raised with to be too formal (even fake formal). My current boss calls me “charming if archaic” on this subject.

Suz October 7, 2009 at 8:52 am

@ Ms. Factotum – The receptionist at your clinic calls you by your first name to protect your privacy. At most medical centers, staff are instructed not to use the patient’s last name in front of others to help protect patient confidentiality.

Melissa Barber October 7, 2009 at 3:19 pm

When I’m puzzling out a gender-neutral name, I call the person’s office — at midnight. Then I listen to their voice mail. Very stealthy….
.-= Melissa Barber´s last blog ..New videos test your interview smarts! =-.

Angie Sallese October 9, 2009 at 3:19 pm

@Melissa—I’ve used your suggestion often, and it usually works.

I’m lucky I work in an industry where many of my customers are PhD-level folks. When we don’t know how to address someone new, calling that person Dr. Smith works very well.

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