How Not to Make a Gender Statement

1. The writer must make his gender statement.

2. The writer must make her gender statement.

3. The writer must make his/her gender statement.

4. The writer must make their gender statement.

5. As a writer, you must make your gender statement.

6. The writer must make hir gender statement.

Gender-neutral pronouns would be wonderful, but getting there requires changing the status quo, often while in the midst of making a point that has nothing to do with gender equality.

I tend to rebel against changing convention for this reason. I don’t want to be cloudy, making a point about gender equality when I’m not talking about gender equality.

But what is the convention?

Problems with each scenario:

  1. I use “his” the most, but I know I seem outdated or even misogynistic. It’s what I learned in school and I don’t have a problem with it. When I read “The writer must make his gender statement,” my attention is not called to the pronoun. I simply absorb the information in the sentence and move on. However, I realize that since this convention is changing, others might find the “his” antiquated and therefore distracting.

  2. “Her” seems overtly feminist. It strikes me as politically correct even now that it’s actually the norm. I find it distracting.

  3. “His/Her” seems more distracting than 2. because it’s ugly on top of being overtly feminist.

  4. Consider: “My teacher took their book out.” There’s no way to make sense of this sentence outside of context if we allow 4. to exist as a convention. “Their” doesn’t bother me in informal speech, in certain cases, but doesn’t seem proper in writing.

  5. “You” only works in second person. Fine for blog posts, not great when you’re writing an academic paper or fiction in 3rd person.

  6. I reserve this for special occasions, and this is one of those occasions: WTF? If I saw “hir” in writing, I would assume someone forgot to use “hir” spell check.

I usually restructure the sentence and leave out the pronoun altogether if I can. I don’t like any of these options. But the problem is broader and goes beyond pronouns.

My novel, Philosopher King, is about a typical philosophy teacher and his typical students, which means it is male-dominated. I consider this a reflection of reality, not a political statement. In fact, I didn’t think about gender when I wrote the first draft, I simply tried to stay true to my experiences. Someone in my writing group noticed the inequality and wondered if I should change a few male characters into female. I thought doing so would seem unrealistic, and would draw attention to itself. However, I’m waffling. If she thought about gender while reading my first draft, perhaps others will too. Apparently the gender issue is inescapable.

I don’t want to distract the reader. I’m feeling damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Should I change the gender of a couple of male characters in order to avoid raising eyebrows? Or should I stick to reality? Any suggestions?

How do you deal with gender when you don’t want to address gender?

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39 thoughts on “How Not to Make a Gender Statement

  1. Oh my goodness such fantastic questions that I relate to so fully! We were just talking about a lot of these issues in my women’s literature class recently.
    I mean, women’s representation is great and all, but if it detracts from the story is it really worth it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong feminist, but at the same time I recognize there are situations where trying to throw in equal representation just doesn’t work or puts the story into an area that seems unrealistic. Like if you were writing a book about a man in prison…it’s not like there is a good way to just throw in fifty fifty representation without it seeming thoroughly odd and unrealistic.
    One of my good friends is a female philosophy major and she can attest to being a very clear minority in her classes so I know that’s definitely a real problem. I’d focus more on making any females you already have in the story good strong characters instead of trying to add/change more. Be clear in your messages you’re sending, give these women some good lines/scenes and let them shine in their own right. I personally am someone who believes it’s more important to have good messages/examples in the story than a high female character count. Beyond that I’d say keep it semi-realistic. Great questions though. Definitely got me thinking. 🙂

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  2. Whilst I think these are what some might call ‘First World Problems’, it’s quite understandable how they would exercise a novelist such as yourself Tina; that’s to say, one who presumably seeks to secure a publishing deal. Anyhow, to stick to your question, I gather there’s an awful lot to be said for writing only what is in some way true to one’s own experience. And this of course is what you have done from what you say above. How can one be true to, and extract what is best from, one’s creative source unless one acts in this way?

    I wonder if it may be the case that collectively we are becoming more attuned to detecting the slight dissonance that seems to permeate any institution or media (Publications, T.V., Radio, Newspapers etc.) which stiltedly adheres to the dictates of gender politics and political correctness – I think this may be so. The BBC here in Britain has suffered terribly through being perceived in this way; and the same is also true of what is still perhaps our best newspaper,The Guardian.

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    • First world problem indeed! I worry about some pretty minor stuff. I must preserve my reputation of being anal-retentive, after all.

      I’m definitely not an admirer of political correctness. It’s in my novel in a big way, for sure, but more in the personality of my protagonist than in me as author. I just want all of this gender stuff to get out of the way! But it’s funny, when you live in a politically correct world, how do you best push gender issues aside to make your point? Sometimes it’s adhering to the norm. It’s a strange possibility that hadn’t occurred to me until recently. I used to enjoy being politically incorrect, but now I wonder if all I managed to do was cloud my point.

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      • We all have First World Problems Tina. I’m currently agonising over what Espresso machine to buy. o_O

        ‘. . . when you live in a politically correct world, how do you best push gender issues aside to make your point?’

        I’m not altogether sure if one can choose a ‘best’ way actually. It’s a hiding-to-nothing situation. Those who see the world through the lens of their gender politics will always have a go at those who don’t; and vice versa.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, that’s a good point. There’s nothing I can do about those people who interpret everything through their gender politics.

          Wish I could help you with the espresso machine matter. I’m currently lusting after a coffee roaster and a Technivorm coffee maker. The popcorn popper I’m using roasts the beans too fast and I tend to end up with espresso whether I like it or not. Talk about a first world problem!

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    • I second this (“his or her”) in general, when the possession is important. Or “one” / one’s. I don’t see it as feminist, so much as egalitarian. Especially if there are writers of multiple stripes. Plus, I don’t like “gender-neutral he” (anymore) anyway, simply for the ambiguity it introduces as to whether one means to speak to gender at all when using it.

      In this particular case, I’d probably reword it to avoid the pronoun: “The writer must make a gender statement.” Or “Each writer…”, depending on your intended meaning.

      Personally, I’m sad that #6 is so grating.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great question Tina, and I don’t think you should do a re-write. If a male-dominated class / teacher fits reality better then that’s the way to go.

    I run into this on my blog mainly when writing about people’s ideas of “gods” or a “God”. Most people traditionally go with “Him” to describe their god, so I stick with that. The whole god thing gets even trickier because not only is there the “He/She” question, some use “It” as a descriptor. I stick with “Him” because I would rather people get the main point of what I’m writing than drift off into thinking “there goes that whole He/She/It thing again”.

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    • Thanks for the input. One of those things about being a writer, especially in fiction, is that it’s hard to know how things come across without having people give feedback. I feel so much more secure going forward!

      So funny about the God thing. I have the same thoughts every time. It’s strange that even when you’re talking about an entity that you put forward as non-existent, you still worry about whether or not this non-existent entity is male or female! I go with “Him” too…it’s less jarring.

      I have little mini-worries about whether or not to capitalize “God,” especially when saying “Oh my God!” You can bypass this by using “OMG” but then you take the risk of sounding like a gum-smacking teenager. So here’s how I handle it: I just try not to say “Oh my God!” and opt for something a little more articulate. Though it’s hard in fiction when you want your character to say just that.

      Yeah, I over think things.

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  4. I never bother worrying about it when I write. His and Her sit all right with me.
    Interesting bit of trivia for you on the sexist subject.
    Due to pressure from feminist groups the French have now dropped the term Mademoiselle. These days all women are ‘officially” referred to as Madam.
    Progress in action. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I actually don’t have an issue with the singular “their”, provided it’s used intelligently. According to Emily Brewster with Merriam-Webster, it’s use in this manner is actually centuries old.
    http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/0033-hisher.html

    Regarding characters, my instinct is not to worry about it, especially if it wouldn’t make sense in the setting. That said, I think every author has to decide to what extent they want to let the market affect their 🙂 work. I suspect just about every successful author pays at least some attention to their target audience. The question is whether lots of male characters would be an issue for that audience. But even if it would, you still wouldn’t want to balance the genders in, say, an ancient Roman army setting.

    Unfortunately, I think the gender issue is unavoidable these days. People will notice if you use all male characters. They will also notice if you balance the genders in a setting where’s it hasn’t historically been balanced.

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    • I loved the video. Especially: “Everyone should do his or her best in whatever situations he or she finds himself or herself in.”

      That’s too good.

      I’m hoping that the female characters I do have seem prominent and sympathetic enough to make up for having so few of them.

      I’m wondering if simply addressing the gender issue will get it out of the way? A reference to so few female philosophy students might be all it takes. Then I don’t distort reality, but it’s clear I’m aware of what I’m doing.

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      • The Merriam-Webster editor videos are all pretty good. The latest one on how most of the rules of writing today ultimately come from some persnickety personality in the 18th century was an eye opener.

        I think mentioning it is a excellent idea. It’s using a technique often called “hanging a lantern on your problem” so that people know you know about it, but have reasons for keeping it there.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I have a few thoughts on this, as it speaks to my lived experience fairly directly.

    1) Gender disparity and treatment depends on the particular field of study, level, and even university, so when crafting a “typical” philosopher professor and class of students, you need to be more specific in order to hit the gender aspect realistically. Some are just disparate, others are openly hostile.

    2) There’s no way to avoid making a gender statement when you’re writing realistically about a world where there’s a significant gender disparity. Ignoring the gender statement /is/ making gender statement – that the status quo isn’t just normal, it’s also normative. Similarly, to say that masculine pronouns are neutral but feminine pronouns are inherently political is to explicitly reify that male = normal and female = different/niche/other.

    3) To that end, in my work, I typically just don’t use pronouns, or else I stick to plurals, or else switch back and forth if I need to use examples, sometimes using “he” or “him” and the next time using “she” or “her”. If I’m working on an historical figure, I stick to the pronouns used by that figure, because even though people tend to assume that all masculine pronouns (including using “man” to mean “human”) are actually meant to be universal neutrals, for more figures than we’d like to think, they weren’t, and I’m not about to risk changing the meaning of the text.

    4) And to the end of realistically representing a disparate environment, I say go for it as is, without changing the characters, but perhaps add a layer of awareness to remove the implicit normative statement. There’s a lot of research into the different ways men and women phrase academic statements, and a lot of socially collected data about the experiences of women in philosophy. I would be happy to help you with resources if you’d like. This is essentially the “hang a lantern” method mentioned in your conversation with SAP above.

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    • Thanks for your advice, Michelle! And thanks too for offering your support. I’ll tell you what the specifics are because I’d love to hear what you think.

      The college in question is Marlboro College in Vermont (I’m changing the name to Winston College, but anyone from Marlboro would recognize it from the descriptions) and in that sense it’s a unique environment. (More on this in a second.) I know that there aren’t many women in philosophy, and the case was the same there, but I don’t know how the disparity compares to other colleges and big universities on the whole. I spent one year at Oklahoma State Uni. and I remember there being even fewer female students at the freshman level. Now Marlboro is extremely small—350 total when I was there during high enrollment. That’s the total number of students in the entire college. At most there were about 5 female students in any given philo course, but usually around 2 or 3 at the upper levels.

      The atmosphere was academically challenging and the competition was intense, but it was the students who imposed that competitive atmosphere. There was a lot of whispering around campus about the Plan, which is just an undergrad thesis combined with an oral exam with an outside examiner. A huge percentage of students drop out their junior year because of anxiety about the Plan. One of the best philosophy students—probably thebest (male)—dropped out for this reason. I just found this quote from Wikipedia:

      Loren Pope, original author of the Colleges that Change Lives college guide and former education editor for The New York Times, writes about Marlboro, saying, “You will find the Marlboro adventure far more intense and intellectually demanding than Harvard, any other Ivy, or Ivy clone. There simply is no comparison.”

      Students would joke that it was the opposite of Harvard, “Easy to get in, hard to get out.” I doubt that reflects the reality of the situation. Of course, it wasn’t really as hard as we students thought it was. It was an inflated perception of what we were doing there. Professors wanted a hundred pages or so of fairly clear writing. We wanted to write graduate level tomes that would later get published.

      I don’t consider myself an easily intimidated person, but I was extremely intimidated and rarely spoke up in class, which was noticeable in a discussion based class of ten students. In fact, I can think of only one female student who didn’t seem intimidated, but I didn’t really know her or what she was actually feeling. Several other female students in philosophy told me how intimidated they were and asked me for advice since I seemed to be sticking it out. However, they weren’t talking about the male-female ratio so much as the academic rigor and seriousness of the students. The perception around campus was that philosophy courses were especially hard, reserved for the most ambitious students. (At OSU, no one talked about philosophy. If anything it was viewed as frivolous, so you can imagine my surprise when I transferred). That said, how much of the male-female ratio factored in anyway? I would venture to guess quite a lot. I don’t mean to make a statement about all men here, but the discussions were sometimes combative and aggressive; on several occasions I thought some guys were gonna come to blows. This could happen in a room full of female students, but I’m not sure. The other classes I took where there was male-female equality had none of this combativeness.

      My novel has four main POV characters, one of whom is female. However, she’s a classics student, an outsider in two respects. She goes to Greece with the guys, but can’t join in on their philosophical discussions. She’s also religious in a pretty thoughtless way, which really worried me since she’s the only female POV character. There’s a big scene in which the guys gang up on her and question her religious beliefs, and basically trample her in argument. A couple of the guys try to come to her rescue, but can’t get the more aggressive one to shut up. (BTW, she represents Cephalus in the Republic, and the one who attacks her, Thrasymachus.) Now she’s genuinely kind and represents everything good about fundamentalist Christians, and none of the bad. She’s not a “Bible thumper” and though she’s thoughtless about it, she takes religion seriously, even to the point of holding off on sex until marriage. However, this is where she stumbles a bit in her convictions when she feels compelled by these philo guys to become more sophisticated. (“Thrasymachus” in the end convinces her that she doesn’t need to change and they become close friends). 🙂

      I nervously ran a sample chapter by my writing group, and they (almost entirely women) found her sympathetic, perhaps because no one in my writing group is philosophical. So when she wonders what the guys are going on about, I suppose they can relate to that. I don’t know how someone like you would take it, since you are philosophical. That’s been a worry in the back of my mind.

      There’s another minor character, male, Classics student, who is in a similar position as she as far as being an outsider to philosophy. I don’t know if that’s enough.

      Any suggestions on how or where to hang the lantern?

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      • Hmm… I think that in this case the place to “hang the lantern” would be in the dialogue. Generally speaking, masculine phrases includes more specifics and an openness to speculation than feminine phrasing, which often includes more open questions, self-deprecation, and qualifiers – and this often causes academic intimidation and affects perceptions of confidence/competence. For example, let’s say there are two philosophy students – one stereotypically masculine in speech patterns, the other stereotypically feminine – and both are struggling with the same passage of Aristotle, unable to come to a coherent exegesis because of a terminological shift. Whereas the feminine student might says “This might be really obvious to everyone else, but I’m a bit confused about what Aristotle is trying to say here when he switches from from dynamis to physis,” the masculine student might say something like “Where Aristotle shifts from dynamis to physis, the underlying principle of change becomes a principle of growth, which might imply that he’s shifting into a new line of inquiry that no longer pertains to the… (etc)”.

        The feminine student would likely receive a simple explanation of the general meaning of the passage, and the topic of the terminological shift would likely be glossed over, leaving the feminine student feeling unsatisfied and rather like something was missing, either in his/her original reading, or in that of his/her colleagues. In my experience, the masculine student’s response would likely spark a discussion, be taken as a critique, and carry forward into a deeper line of inquiry.

        (To be clear, women in philosophy often adopt the masculine style as it is perceived more as a “philosophical style”, which often makes the field off-putting to outsiders who aren’t readily open to a more combative mode of discourse – it’s not explicitly man/woman, but still follows closely enough to typified gender constructs to be more off-putting to non-philosophical women than non-philosophical men).

        (And also, there are many philosophical environments that are open and receptive to feminine phrasing and open questions, but we’re going stereotypical here).

        And the results are cyclical. The feminine phrasing reflects a lack of confidence, coming across as a question, whereas the masculine phrasing comes from the exact same confusion but in engaging speculation, comes across as a thoughtful observation. There are a lot of theories about where this difference in self-interpretation comes from, but it’s pretty common across the board. For example, studies show that young girls who consider themselves “bad at math” often have comparable grades to boys who think they’re “good at math” – and then the perception of confidence spurs them on to avoid or seek out harder math classes. What happens to the feminine philosophy student is that the feedback they get – the oversimplified answer presented as authority – reflects back into their self-perception, and affecting future phrasing that continues this pattern (while the masculine student will be bolstered by the discussion that followed, and potentially turn that comment into a conference paper).

        This is a common way that female students get steamrolled in class discussions, and I think would work for your characters, particularly in the particular conversation you mentioned. It would be easy enough to include other gendered speech patterns, perhaps have those trying to help her point out those differences in the conversation (“She’s just brought up the same point, weren’t you listening? Just because she didn’t speculate on…” etc.), and then perhaps have them talk about her discursive style after the fact. I’m not sure how well that would work for your story, but it’s a possibility.

        Also, I’ve got links to articles about gendered speech patterns and their repercussions, if you’re interested.

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      • Wow, thanks for the thoughtful input! I really appreciate your taking the time to do this.

        I haven’t thought about speech patterns in the masculine/feminine way at all. I’m definitely gonna have to keep that in mind when I’m working on my revisions. What a great tip!

        I’d love to read those articles. It’s funny because now that you’ve brought my attention to this matter, I’m remembering discussions and the way the professor often had to stop the male students from steamrolling the female ones, “Well, now wait a minute. So-and-so just brought up such and such point…” And simply having the prof call attention to it gave it the requisite authority to be taken seriously by everyone.

        For my female POV character I have a lot of internal thought, so the reader gets access to her reasoning, but the male characters don’t. A lot of times she knows that her explanation is too complicated to get through to them, or they wouldn’t understand it. For instance, she’s a fundamentalist Christian and she doesn’t worry about whether or not the world was created in seven days. Her focus is on having a community of people who are committed to living good, moral lives. She can’t say these things because the boys are discussing it so rigorously and she doesn’t know how to tell them they’ve missed the purpose of her faith, and that these are not important questions for her.

        I may have to rework some scenes so that she tries to convey these things but simply gets bulldozed. That would work very well both for the story tension and her character.

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      • I’m sorry I wrote so much! I’m just really excited about your story and I got carried away thinking about the dynamics at play. Having been the only female philosopher in the class, the panel, the entire conference (that was a weird one), it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I can’t wait to read the finished product some day.

        Those links! Some of these are loaded with interpretation and political ideology, but the facts generally line up.

        http://www.businessinsider.com/men-dominate-conversations-women-keep-quiet-2014-4
        http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2205502/The-great-gender-debate-Men-dominate-75-conversation-conference-meetings-study-suggests.html
        http://www.linguistik-online.com/1_00/KUNSMANN.HTM
        http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/he-speaks-she-speaks/201307/the-gender-politics-turn-taking
        http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2014/07/conversation-and-sexes
        http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=13422
        http://womanpilot.com/?p=115
        http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117757/gender-language-differences-women-get-interrupted-more

        And two on the math example that I think pertain directly to this conversation:

        http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-candy/201306/girls-and-math-study-combats-stereotype-threat
        http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130827091729.htm

        Liked by 1 person

        • I went through all the articles and found them fascinating and revelatory, especially in applying them to my past experiences.

          I took three years of tech ed in middle school. By the end of the third year, there were only two girls in the class. The boys were perfectly nice and didn’t discriminate against me or tease me, not even when I admitted that I was afraid of using the machines. They encouraged me and were supportive, and not in a power-hungry or sexual sort of way. And you know how middle school boys can be. But I wonder if the nature of this kind of class attracted a certain type of boy? Generally, these boys made good grades, weren’t drug users, and were quiet, sometimes shy. We often sat outside sanding our projects while quietly discussing things. (The other girl, however, liked to kick me when my back was turned to her! We all just ignored her aggression and moved on.) I’m sure that my attitude towards friendship with boys was positively reinforced by this class and might even account for why I later thought nothing of being the only female in a group. I wonder how the other girl felt? Who knows.

          Fast forward to college. I matriculate to Marlboro and start taking philosophy classes where the discussions are fast-paced and everyone’s interrupting each other, even after the prof tells them that they are supposed to address the last speaker. I sit in silence, infuriated that the guys are bringing up points that have nothing to do with the what the last person said. Occasionally I wave a feeble hand in the air to try to say something, but it rarely gets noticed. (And at this point I can’t get it through my head that hand-raising isn’t the way things are done here.) The teacher constantly has to corral the conversation before it goes off into la-la land. Mid-semester the prof asks me why I don’t speak in class. “Usually, the silent students don’t understand what’s going on, but you just wrote a solid paper. Why aren’t you speaking up?”

          My verbatim reply: “Because these guys are assholes.”

          He laughs, then says, “Sure. They ARE assholes. But you still have to speak up. Discussion is part of your grade.”

          My interpretation of events, perhaps because of my pro-male bias, was that the aggressive style was caused by these particular guys being assholes, not guys being stereotypical guys.

          So now I’m having a bit of a revelation. It never occurred to me that the philosophy students were exhibiting a male conversational style and that the teacher was trying to teach them a “female” cohesion and cooperation. He would say, “Don’t look at me, look at the last speaker.” No one could remember to do this! I was nearly foaming at the mouth. It was a constant struggle to get them to stop pontificating in isolation.

          I did notice in my Leibniz class that most of the male students were the quieter, more reserved ones—like the nice guys in my tech ed class—and the discussion moved along phenomenally. Everyone participated and the environment felt productive.

          So it seems the male conversational style, while not across-the-board true for every man (and same for females), is still a useful way of looking at these types of interactions. It’s certainly better than calling them assholes! They were just doing their guy thing, which I hadn’t quite experienced before. I think this will help me be a bit more understanding at my next dinner party. And really, in moderation and with good humor, the male conversational style has its merits.

          Besides the male/female divide, there’s also the introvert/extrovert thing at play here too. I tend to think of the latter but not the former, possibly because in my experiences the gender stereotypes haven’t always matched up.

          Thanks so much for sending me these articles! I’m sure I can bring all these factors into my novel, and hopefully with more awareness. Thanks also for taking an interest in my story. I can’t wait to finish it and hear what you think!

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          • I’m glad they were helpful! I think you’re right that awareness really helps with dealing with different conversational styles. Also, sometimes just confidently sticking to your original point (i.e. “Yes, that’s a possibility, but it does really show that there’s more going on here,” etc.). I’ve learned to adapt a little and be a lot more confident in my questions so I can jump into the fray without affectation.

            And occasionally, some people are just jerks who like to hear themselves talk, so I don’t rule out that possibility either. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

    • FWIW, regarding your (Michelle’s) #3, I personally find “she/her” as gender-neutral, and alternating (“he” this time, “she” next) to be more distracting than gender-neutral “he” – and I’m no fan of that, either.

      But, the alternating bothering me may wane with time. We’ll see.

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