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jarich (4909)

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I run Perl Training Australia [] with pjf [] and do a lot of the course writing and maintenance. I also organise the courses we run, so if you want one, just ask. I hang around a bit on Perlmonks [] and also help run Melbourne Perl Mongers [].

Journal of jarich (4909)

Monday June 19, 2006
10:11 PM

"He" is not gender neutral.

[ #29970 ]

I don't view myself as a radical feminist. I rarely even think of myself as a feminist. But I guess I must be. I certainly have strong views about women in IT (we need more) and about the male attitudes towards us (they need to think more).

It's astounding, sometimes, how even the most women-friendly men can write women-unfriendly stuff without thinking about it. Consider the following two snippets:

So I'm wondering if anyone with die - eval experience would like to step up and share his views on how those two paradigms compare, in a form of an engaging talk.


This may not please your manager, as he may also believe that what you want is the lowest price, and so on.

Why does someone have to be male to give a talk at a Perl Mongers meeting on die and eval? Why is a manager automatically considered to be male?

When I object to this kind of writing I get responses which tell me that of course the author didn't mean to exclude the possibility of women in those roles. That "he/she" or "they" are ugly work-arounds. And the fact is that I agree. I don't believe the author intended anything, I agree that working around language is a pest.

But even so, it bothers me. Because there is a (usually unintential) message there all the same, and it does say "Women don't speak at user group meetings" or "Women aren't managers". And even if I try not to listen I'm innudated with these messages every day. These messages (commercials, TV shows, billboards, books...) say it's the woman's job to clean the house, do the washing, iron the clothes, look after the kids. On the other hand, it's the man's role to work late at the office, play golf with friends, participate in sports, be intelligent, know how to fix computers...

There are enough messages out there discouraging women from being involved in IT at all. It's not a field where gender doesn't matter. Gender matters a lot. Which is why many women experience a lot of unwanted attention whenever they turn up to user groups or install-fests. But the whole thing would be just that much easier for us if people thought about how they wrote and tried a little harder to avoid being gender exclusionary.

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  • I agree with everything you've said, except that I place less significance on the importance of the use of "he".

    I only see a few options here. "they" is obviously better, when the grammar supports it. He/she gets tiresome very quickly, and alternating between he and she looks even more jarring.

    I've understood the cleanest method to be that when no gender is identifiable, the writer's gender is used.

    The sentence, "And if their manager doesn't like it, he can go shove it" from me would be instead "And if thei
    • I think it's easy to place less significance on the use of the word "he" when it matches your own gender, the majority of people in that position and your personal experiences.

      Consider the following sentence. Apparently it (or something like it) used to appear in standard medical textbooks, and is now used as an example in lingustics courses as to how our language has changed:

      Before prescribing any medications, doctors should always ask their patient whether he may be pregnant.

      I personally do

      • About your example of a doctor in old times asking his (presumably) patient whether he was pregnant. How does it feel being so closed-minded? Yes, you're closed-minded. It's jarring if you're not used to men being pregnant, isn't it? We make little assumptions all the time. People like to communicate in concrete terms. I'd politely suggest getting over it. Are you really so frail that you need our grammatical protection?

        • Here! I've got an idea: Suppose you agree that he can't actually have babies, not having a womb - which is nobody's fault, not even the Romans' - but that he can have the *right* to have babies.
  • I usually alternate between male and female forms. That is, after each male (pro)noun, there comes a female (unless I'm referring back to previous person).

    I also have to say that I see female forms quite often in Perl books (though it's a sign that there's stille a lot of gender mainstreaming to do, as I'm surprised and delighted every time I see it). So there is some awareness.

    Oh, and the situation is even worse in German, where we have to jump through a lot of hoops to write gender-neutral text. E.g.:

    • gerundiums (is this an english word?)

      It's gerund [] in English. You can't use one to get around a pronoun's gender, though, or at least I think it'd be very awkward.

      • Funny!

        There where gerundiums and gerunds in Latin, but German ditched the gerunds. It seems that English ditches gerundiums.

        Anyway, discerning between gerundiums and gerunds was a constant source of pain for me (and others) in our latin classes...
  • "he" does not necessarily mean it is a man. []

    he ...
      "2 -- used in a generic sense or when the sex
      of the person is unspecified < he that hath ears
      to hear, let him hear -- Matthew 11:15 (Authorized
      Version)> one should do the best he can>"
  • "He" is not gender neutral.

    To put my pedant hat on, I must point out that dictionarys do in fact indicate a gender neutral definition for "he". My Concise Oxford, for example, says "a person ... of unspecified sex".

    I wouldn't deny for a moment that such meanings are considered dated now. It's pretty hard to overlook the obvious male bias in the word. As both you and Adam point out, the English language lacks a comfortable alternative. Perhaps you'd like to coin one?

    There's a bit of a chicken-and-

  • ... what exactly is the proper and established gender-neutral singular pronoun in English?

    (All of the style guides to which I write suggest switching back and forth between "he" and "she" and I'm fine with that to the extent that I have no desire to give offense. However, in a language that barely supports gender anywhere but specific singular pronouns and yet lacks a neuter case, it feels weird.)

    • ... what exactly is the proper and established gender-neutral singular pronoun in English?


      At least, it was both proper and established long before the Latin-besotted prescriptive grammarians sunk their talons into English usage.

      See Wikipedia [] for a summary, and this site [] for more detail than you could possibly desire.

      Personally, I strive very hard either to cast my subjects in the plural, or to avoid the use of pronouns entirely. All the "approved" alternatives are ugly, cumbersome, or bot

      • I considered adding a link to the last time the subject came up, but I rolled and hoped you wouldn't read this comment. I didn't even use your name!

        • I didn't even use your name!
          What makes you think I don't read everything that mentions your name? >;-)


  • This made me think of something. I'm hearing more and more people, women including, speaking to groups of people and referring to the group as "guys". Merriam-Webster has added it even: 3b -- "used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex ".
    • There is a bit of a backlash against this use, which can get pretty silly []. Douglas "G.E.B." Hofstadter is quite strongly anti-"guy", basically since "guy", in the singular, strongly defaults to male ("I saw a guy running down the street"), so he sees using "guys" as sexist as using "he" as default, or "fireman". I think that he even views it as worse, because to him women calling themselves "guys" is inherently self-denigrating. I don't know if anyone's really ever bothered to argue with this view, but i
  • "This may not please your manager, as it may also believe that what you want is the lowest price, and so on." :)
  • I am not doing this always but when it seems to be important to be very gender neutral (as opposed to it which is the neutral gender) I tend to use s/he.

    Ocassionally, when I decide to go with only she and then I get to an example where she makes all kinds of mistakes I start to feel bad - am I emphasizing with that phrasing that only females make those mistakes ??? - and then I go back to use he in such examples.

    In this sense Hungarian is so much simpler where there is no gender whatsoever in the langu

  • I know that guy. durn elbonians. they haven't discovered all the vowels yet. I just blogged the same thing.. []
  • There is an indefinite pronoun that has fallen out of usage, name "one", unfortunetly it is usually misunderstood as meaning "I", but in fact means an indefinite person. The problem is that it doesn't refer back to someone identified earlier, though it is gender neutral.

    I have sometimes seen in older texts the term "that one" to refer to an identified person in a gender neutral way. Sounds a bit clumsy today though

    This may not please your manager, as that one may also believe that what you want is t