PSA - "He" is not a substitute for "they"

Public Service Announcement: ‘He’ is not a substitute for ‘They’

Yesterday I wrote about Guys. Maybe you don’t believe that Guy is a gendered word, but you’ve got to see that He is. Yet so often He is used to mean “they”, “people”, “users”. Why is the default he

Really, Microsoft Word?

Recently, we’ve been looking at anonymised user logs. We have no idea who is using the site, but when someone is explain the user behaviour a lot of the time they will say “Look at what he’s doing. He’s struggling with X”. 

I understand that sometimes this can be a language barrier, where people who speak English as a second langauge don’t realise the implication of using he over she. I bought this up when I overheard it, and two of my favourite dev’s were open to a chat.

They realised they were more likely to use the word “he”, particularly if the user was searching for typically male-dominated roles. One mentioned that he saw someone searching for Marketing roles and caught himself saying she when talking about this specific user. I must admit, I automatically defaulted to ‘she’ for Admin roles, instead of using ‘they’ like I did for all other users. 

Why does this happen? This is our unconscious biases coming through. 

Unconscious Bias

These decisions of using 'he' or 'she' are triggered automatically by our brain making quick decisions based on prior experiences. 

One developer mentioned referring to most of his daughters toys as a “he”, and it’s something he’s trying to change. For him the unconscious is becoming conscious.  

There is a cat in my street called Bailey. How do I know that? Because I’m a crazy cat lady who pets Bailey and read it off the collar. I have no idea who owns Bailey, but we sort of have a thing going on. 

Bailey, the cat. 

When I talk about Bailey to my partner (which is quite a bit), I find myself saying “he”. I have no idea of Bailey’s gender. Bailey is a unisex name (arguably more common in females), so why does my mind default to male? Me, a progressive feminist? Because of unconscious biases and societal norms ingrained over decades. Let’s look at an example in practice….

The Surgeon’s Dilemia 

A father and his son are involved in a horrific car crash and the man died at the scene. But when the child arrived at the hospital and was rushed into the operating theatre, the surgeon pulled away and said: “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son”. 

How can this be? Of course the surgeon is the boy’s mother. But how long did it take you to realise this? Women can be doctors! We have been able to since the 1800’s. 

Am I being a grammar nazi? Does this actually matter? 

No, yes. Respectively. It matters. 

When your automatic assumption is that the doctor is male and the female is a nurse, you slow progress. You enforce gendered steroytpes. You make it harder for females to enter these fields and to feel welcome. Tradesman, taxman, postman, fireman, policeman.  

When even robots are refered to as “he” and virtual assistance are of course women, something is wrong. 

Sweat the small stuff. Choose your words wisely. Make the unconscious conscious. Change the world by not raising the next generation with our unconscious biases where the default is male. You’ll open minds, empower equality and save lives.