“Dear Sirs”… Attorney Takes On Firm’s Archaic Use Of Male-Centric Language, Inspires Change Toward Gender Equality

CareerGender 2 Comments

Megan Castellano, a capital markets attorney based in London, recently proposed and led an initiative to ban the use of “Dear Sirs” in all communications and legal documents globally across Freshfields, the first of Britain’s top legal firms to do so.

I consider myself lucky to love my job.  Not every moment of every day, of course, but in general, love it.  Love the pressure, the intensity, the energy and buzz around deals. Most of all, I love the opportunity to meet and work with interesting, driven, conscientious and inspiring colleagues and clients. In particular, inspiring women – partners at law firms, department heads at investment banks, directors at accountancy firms, CEOs and CFOs of companies.

I’m inspired not just by the women themselves, but by what they represent. They represent progress. A willingness to fight. An ability to overcome.

Because the fact remains women are underrepresented in many facets of society, and overrepresented in others. And as society will tell you, it’s not easy being a woman in a man’s world or to have it all. Despite the many accomplished women I’ve met through work, it’s not uncommon for me to be one of the few women, or the only woman, “in the room.”

“Dear Sirs” represents a world we don’t live in. A world where women aren’t running companies, or countries, or making brilliant contributions to their communities.

We’re told women start off on equal footing career-wise, then disproportionately leave. I see for many of my female peers across the legal and financial services industries, lack of female role models plays a huge role, creating in effect a vicious cycle. I think it’s more than that. I think it’s also the practices and behaviours that contribute to a male-oriented workplace culture. The subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) reminders that we’re being told to play by the rules. Rules put in place over centuries of thought which said women can’t do it, women shouldn’t be there, women should be satisfied with something other than fulfilling their potential.

These practices and behaviours can be confidence-sapping and, therefore, career-shaping for women. They are what we must first identify, then tackle. We tackle them by confronting them, head on, and by raising awareness. Awareness fosters understanding. Understanding fosters change.

“Dear Sirs” is a case in point. “Dear Sirs” represents a world we don’t live in. A world where women aren’t running companies, or countries, or making brilliant contributions to their communities. Yet, for many legal, financial and other professional services firms in London and elsewhere, it is still the “accepted standard.” Male-centric language, however, begs an injustice, a disregard and disrespect for the role and impact of women. And words create worlds, and frames of mind.

Male-centric language begs an injustice, a disregard and disrespect for the role and impact of women. And words create worlds, and frames of mind.

So I asked to speak with the managing partner at Freshfields about banning “Dear Sirs” and moving to gender neutral language, such as “Dear Ladies and Gentlemen.” Together, he and I strategized how to implement the new policy across the firm internationally. I’m really proud of my firm, and am inspired and humbled by the ripple effect of the initiative, with overwhelmingly positive reaction and with clients and counterparts following suit.

I have always felt that being a lawyer gives you an ability, a platform, to effect change. And with that the belief that you are more than yourself, that you have a responsibility to society and to further social progress. My aim is for “Dear Sirs,” and other gender-based language, such as “Chairman,” to be challenged across the industry. I believe these and other incremental changes can lead to seismic shifts in gender equality.

These aren’t “women’s issues.” This is social progress. Social progress over history was only ever achieved through the brave and decisive actions of women and men who refused to accept the status quo, and who believed their vision of the future was not only possible, but within their reach.

About The Author

Megan Castellano has been a capital markets attorney at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP based in London for the past five years.  She holds a J.D., cum laude, and an LL.M. in international law, cum laude, from Cornell University Law School, where she was an Editor of the Cornell Law Review.  She has also studied at Oxford University, University College London, Universite Paris I Panetheon-Sorbonne and the Center for Transnational Legal Studies.  She received her B.A., summa cum laude, from Boston University. Megan is admitted to the New York State Bar.

  • Gisele

    other reason’s why women leave careers more often is male bullying – experienced in the trades, cops, firefighters etc …harassment …& then add to it – having a husband costs a minimum of 7 hours a week in extra chores & goes up exponentially with kids & the mom is expected to be the one taking time off to take the kids to the doctors – even when he has benefits & she doesn’t …Women spend more time than men caring for their children. In 2010, women spent an average of 50.1 hours per week on unpaid child care, more than double that (24.4 hours) spent by men. Women spend more time than men on domestic work. In 2010, while women spent 13.8 hours per week doing housework, men spent 8.3 hours. Women were almost twice as likely as men (49% compared to 25%) to spend more than 10 hours per week caring for a senior. ….& even tougher by much…Almost 1 in 4 lone mothers working as an employee in 2000 had low weekly earnings (23%). Because they require flexible hours for taking children to school or child-care centres, lone mothers may find their job prospects restricted. Also, given the strain of raising children on their own, lone mothers are often less healthy than mothers with spouses (Pérez and Beaudet 1999). This could also deter them from working in high-pay, stressful environmentsIn 2000.” & “Mothers with long career interruptions face larger earnings gap
    Clearly, long career interruptions had a negative impact on the earnings of mothers (Chart C). For example, the difference in average hourly earnings between childless women and mothers with more than three years of interruption was close to 30% at age 40. On the other hand, relatively short career interruptions made little difference—before age 33, average earnings of mothers with more than one year but less than three years of interruption were somewhat below the average of childless women, but after age 33, they were similar.” I had 7 years “reduced work capacity” due to the cancer in one of my twins – who thanks to good health care, luck & dietary vigilance – he has healed ..but that 7 years of follow up came out of our family income & my already meagre pension…how to afford re-training when : “Single moms have a net worth of only about $17,000, while single dads have about $80,000.15 (Net worth is the total value of possessions such as a car, furniture, real estate, savings, stocks, RRSPs, etc.)
    Single parent mothers—21%6 (7% of single parent fathers) are poor
    In rural areas families with a female head of household are generally very poor (Lichter and Eggebeen 1992). Families headed by women in rural settings are living in poverty, and this population has increased internationally by almost 50 percent in the last two decades of the twentieth century. This growing poverty has many implications for all rural families.” so that, is why in my experience women leave professions – they deck is still so very stacked against us!! OECD has Canada way down the list for women & equality & as a working “some college” woman for 30 years here – that reflects my personal experience through several forced career changes due technology – changing society etc!

  • Zoe Nicholson

    is there a bit of irony that you are standing in front of a Picasso? Maybe you could choose a Kahlo, Martin, O’Keeffe, Gentileschi?