The end of Mrs and Miss

Morten Rand-Hendriksen (@mor10) asked an excellent question on Twitter today:

I never understood why women are required to prefix their names based on marital status.
 Mrs., Miss, Ms. #archaic

So why do we still have the options of Miss and Mrs.? Why do we need these prefixes at all?

Of course, Ms. has been around for years, and is thoroughly accepted, and yet: We still see these older prefixes on forms and never stop to question it.

Why ARE we asking for these prefixes?

There has been a tremendous amount of attention paid lately to gender equality in the programming world, which is an excellent thing. I've actually for the most part stayed out of the conversation, mostly because I'm a bit older than most programmers (I can remember, as a child, the "bra-burning days"). What may seem to you like a brand new conversation is actually an old one going through another iteration, as we wind closer and closer to our final destination of true, in our hearts and minds rather than just our words, Equality.

The most difficult part of these changes, I've always felt, has not really been the obvious cases. Most of us know better than to tell racist jokes at a party or make comments like, "Women can't do X". Most importantly, though, the environment has changed sufficiently that we are not afraid to show our disapproval of that sort of behavior. In most situations, you no longer feel the need to laugh or go along with things. (You may point to the recently breaking story of the Miami Dolphins. I'll contend that 10 years ago, it would have been swept under the rug, and when I was a child, no one would have even thought it worthy of being reported.)

The thing that is very difficult for people not in the minority group to understand is that, where the actual issue lies is usually not in people doing the blatantly bad - the crowd will take care of that - but rather in the environment that is created by the often innocent everyday habits and remarks. We all understand the concept of "atmosphere" - a party that has all the right ingredients, but just doesn't take off; a team of superb players who just can't find the chemistry to win. This is a terribly difficult thing to pin down, and yet this is what determines the ultimate success or failure of a project.

So to tie this back to my original question - why are we asking women to put information on a form that has no use other than to let us know if she might be a potential mate?

Putting it bluntly like that, the problem jumps right out, doesn't it? If we need to know gender - put a gender radio set on your form. If there is a reason to ask marital status, then do the same - for men and women. Don't put a question on the form that implicitly asks, "Please let me know if you have a husband lurking around". Remove this little, old-fashioned question that adds meta data to a woman's record about her status in the world with regards to possible availability for sex. Change that small part of the atmosphere.

Why do I bring this up in a programming blog? Quite simply, because we programmers have the power to affect this particular small change. Most forms these days are online - created by technical people. Us. This little drop in the bucket can be OUR drop, joining with others to change over time how people think about each other.

Here's what I'm asking you to do:

If you make a new form, limit salutations to Dr., Mr., Ms.

If your customer wants Mrs. & Miss, push back. Up to you to decide how far and how hard, but make an effort.

If your current company uses forms that have Mrs. & Miss, propose the field & forms be changed. If you feel your direct boss won't be amenable, consider finding someone in sales or marketing with a bit of clout who might champion the cause

That's it. Not very hard to do. Perhaps 10 years from now, the thought of a form that asks a woman for her marital status for no reason will be met with the same reaction as a sexist joke in a high-level meeting is most places today.

I welcome discussion on this subject on HN:

Contact me