As I continue my exploration of feminist literature, I’ve become much more aware of pronoun usage.
I realized my default pronoun for writing and speaking has been male gendered. If I thought about pronoun usage in advance, I could alternate and use female gendered pronouns, but when I wasn’t paying attention, my default went back to the male pronoun.
I also noticed that much of what I read used male-gendered pronouns as a default. When referring to a specific person, pronoun usage was linked to the person, but whenever the writing referenced a non-specific person, the pronouns were usually male.
I’ve given several talks in the past few months where I consciously decided to use only female-gendered pronouns, except when referring to a specific person (where I then matched the gender of the person.) After these talks, I regularly got positive notes about this, from both women and men, thanking me for doing this.
Some of these talks were about gender issues in tech, but others were about something entirely different, so the positive reactions were instructive to me. I started mentioning this approach, including to several women I respected a lot for their views on gender issues. I specifically asked if my behavior around this was useful. All gave me a resounding yes.
So I’ve decided to try to use female-gendered pronouns as my default in writing and talking for a while and see how it goes. I’ll still occasionally use male-gendered pronouns, but by having the female as the default, I hope to have “her” appear more frequently.
All of this notwithstanding, I think it’s important to recognize that there’s an entire generation that is moving quickly past binary pronouns to epicene (or gender-neutral) pronouns. I write this way also and in lots of situations, it works well. But I’m not ready to shift to it, especially since I have a massive deficit of female-gendered pronouns in my historical writing.
The English language badly needs a gender neutral pronoun. The more I write, the more I feel the need for this. In my post yesterday, Does Your VP of HR Report To Your CEO? I felt this very acutely as I tried to be gender neutral to avoid the “CEO’s are male, VP of HR are female” bias. But I failed and just used “he” throughout the post.
Jason and I struggled a lot with this in our new book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist. We finally gave up and used “he” throughout. But we felt compelled to discuss this in the Preface.
“In an early draft, we varied gender on pronouns, using “she” liberally throughout the book. However, as we edited the book, we found that the mixed gender was confusing and made the book less readable. So we decided to use male pronouns throughout as a “generic pronoun” for both genders. We are sensitive to gender issues in both computer science and entrepreneurship in general—Brad has worked for a number of years as chair of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (www.ncwit.org). We hope our female readers are okay with this approach and hope someday someone comes up with a true gender-neutral set of English pronouns.”
In general, I’ve adopted the “use the pronoun of the author” approach. I’ve tried (s)he but I don’t like it – I find it to be hard to read. I like “phe” or “per” but neither of these have had any consistent usage that I’m aware of.
For all the women out there reading this, when I say “he” I actually mean “he or she” or “she or he”. And for all the english scholars and style book writers out there, please push the use of “phe”, “per”, or some other gender neutral pronoun on the world.