Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Gendered pronouns: the options

Given that I think using the generic masculine at least a factor contributing to gender stereotyping and bias in society, and that it makes men a more salient interpretation of the referent, I want to try another strategy.

I have three major options:
  1.     Use "she" as the pronoun for all examples.
  2.     Alternate between "he" and "she."
  3.     Use the gender neutral "they" for all examples.
For each of these options, I would like to know:
  1. What effect it has on the reader (if any) in terms of gender stereotype/bias/salience etc.
  2. What effect it has on the reader (if any) in their evaluation of my writing or understanding of the content.
I'll take Option Two (alternating pronouns) first.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

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.