Gendered pronouns in academic writing

As an academic writer, writing in English, I am faced with a question when presenting generic examples. What pronoun(s) should I use? There are several options:
  1. Use "he" as the pronoun for all examples.
  2. Use "she" as the pronoun for all examples.
  3. Alternate between "he" and "she."
  4. Use the gender neutral "they" for all examples.
What are the relevant considerations?

I take the following to be true: academic philosophy as a field is male-dominated (in numbers of participants and in other ways), academic philosophy has problems with implicit and explicit bias, biases against women in general (and women philosophers in particular) solely on the basis of their gender is unethical, and academic philosophers, insofar as they are able, ought to try to diminish unethical biases.

The questions an academic writer must answer, then, include:
  • Does pronoun choice influence the reader's biases?
  • Does it influence it to a degree that makes the choice of pronouns ethically important?
  • Does it influence in the proper direction, that is, against predominant male bias?
The motivation for options 2 through 4 is the claim that "he", when used as a generic pronoun to include both male and female persons, is comprehended not as a generic, but as referring to male persons. The result is that when writers use "he" for generic examples intended to include men and women, they unwittingly reinforce biases already present in society: that men are "default" humans and women are a "marked" class.

If changing pronouns can in some way challenge the idea that men are the "default", it seems a small effort for an ethically significant return. On the other hand, if changing pronouns is harmful, or makes no impact, then at best, it is a gesture which makes the author feel good while doing nothing, and at worst, it adds to existing biases.

Interpretation of the generic masculine
There is at least some evidence that using the masculine as a generic (GM) will make female members of the class being referred to less salient. See Miller and James, "Is the generic pronoun he still comprehended as excluding women?" in The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 122, No. 4 (Winter 2009), pp. 483-496, for their own study as well as a survey of other studies and results. There is also some evidence that this effect may be stronger for women encountering the GM use, a result not entirely surprising given the existence of stereotype threat. One thing to note is that this effect remains even when interpreters are aware of the rule that a generic masculine refers to both male and female genders.

It is, of course, an open question whether a more gender-egalitarian society would change the way that interpreters understand the GM. If, for example, men were not stereotypically associated with being mechanics, we might understand sentences like these differently: "A mechanic ought to check the fluid levels in vehicles. His job requires attention to detail." However, while it is possible that our interpreting a generic masculine pronoun as referring to men and not women is primarily due to facts our culture, and would be different in a different society, the fact remains that this is how interpreters tend to hear "he" and "his" even when the words are intended to include women.

Pronoun choice and gender bias
Thus there is an important further question: does pronoun choice have a positive or negative impact on interpreter biases? After all, it could be that while men are more salient when reading the mechanic example above, this has no effect on things like hiring practices of mechanics, treatment of women mechanics, and etc. This is a dominant view, especially, in my experience, among those who dismiss concerns about pronoun choices as "PC" or "silly." Charitably, they use such terms not because they think substantial gender equality is silly or a matter of political correctness, but because they think choices about language make no difference in matters of substance.

One immediate response is that if it makes "no difference", then why the fight over keeping "he" as the default generic pronoun? Language changes and, unless one is a staunch prescriptivist, taking a stand on "he" versus "they" versus "she" seems (if the "silly" thesis is correct) to just be a matter of style. The motivation is probably more that the "silly" camp feels pressure to bend their style to the demands of other academics. But academics have all kinds of arbitrary stylistic demands upon their writing. Why is this one the cause of such a vitriolic response? Again, to be charitable, if someone thinks that pronoun choice does not impact gender bias in the world, but they are committed to gender equality, they might balk at having their feminist credentials being evaluated based on the use of a pronoun. I can appreciate this position---if I think that race-based discrimination is evil, but I have philosophical problems with the implementation of affirmative action, I would not want someone to claim I am a racist merely because of this stance. However, dismissing affirmative action as "silly" is likely to undercut my objection that I take racism seriously.

Personally, I would greatly appreciate it if people who have this response would be clearer in conversation about the motivation for rejecting gender-inclusive language. I have heard academics off-handedly dismiss the use of gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language when I know they have explicitly said they are dedicated to gender equality in society. While certainly conversational context is important, instead of saying pronoun changes are "silly" or "PC", it doesn't seem that much harder to say pronoun changes "don't address the actual issue." But I digress.

Some sociologists argue simply that "Working against sexist language is working against men’s violence against women." (Kleinmann, "Why Sexist Language Matters." Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer 2002) She cites Douglas Hofstader's classic satire of complaints about sexist language, suggesting that if we balk at "freshwhite" and "you whiteys" we should respond similarly to "freshman" and "you guys." In response, philosophers might point out differences in the semantics of personal pronouns like "he" and plural nouns like "men." And even though the two cases may be analogous and even related, it isn't clear that our intuitions about worlds in which people use "freshwhite" are very helpful for this world where we use "freshman." Armchair discussions won't get us very far where intuitions about sexism and language are concerned, I think. We need empirical evidence that there is some connection between pronoun use and gender bias.

There are some researchers who think they have found such evidence. In Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Volume 69, Issue 1, 128 - 142, Leaper and Bigler survey some of the research, concluding (unsurprisingly) that the relationship between language and thought is complex, but that there may be evidence that 1) use of the GM in parenting can influence gender essentialism in children though implicit imagery and stereotyping, 2)  that young boys are more susceptible to gender stereotyping and form more rigid concepts of gender boundaries, 3) that the link between generics and stereotyped thinking is causal. The authors of these studies are cautious in their conclusions, however.

Personally, my view is that there is enough evidence to suggest that pronoun choice is at least a factor contributing to gender stereotyping and bias in society. While it may be perfectly true that I can employ "he" with the intention to refer to both men and women, I cannot control for all the ways that my readers will interpret the pronoun. Further, now that I am aware of the tendency for "he" to, in many readers, make men a more salient interpretation of the referent, I believe I have a responsibility to choose something other than "he" as a generic if my choice will combat this effect. This is especially the case when I employ generic pronouns in a context where men are already stereotypically associated with the topic. So, using a generic "he" for a mechanic when I am intending to communicate that both men and women are mechanics seems an irresponsible choice. I think this is true, even apart from questions of whether gender inequality can be changed through pronoun use. It's simply a matter of good communicative practices. If I know my words will be interpreted in a way other than I want, I ought to try to use other options, if they're available.

Next: Influencing gender bias through pronouns


  1. I can say that reading a book - for the very first time, at age 23 - with female default pronouns pretty much changed my life.

    Almost instantly, I realized, yeah, I COULD be a programmer/game designer/important. It wasn't unusual, or something I had to fight for. All of a sudden goals were not something I had to overcome, but something I could just do.

  2. That's great to hear! I hope that some of my undergraduates can have a similar story after being exposed to teaching with default feminine pronouns.


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