tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
[personal profile] tim
Cross-posted to geekfeminism.org

This is an expanded version of a comment I wrote to a woman who doesn't work in software and was wondering what was wrong with using "he" as a default pronoun to refer to a programmer whose identity is unknown, since after all, most programmers are male.

Okay, suppose I was a woman, and somebody said this to me. The 'he' would be one more tiny reminder, to me, that everyone in my field assumes that people like me don't do computer science. That would make me feel just a tiny bit more discouraged and, maybe, eventually I would look for a different field, one where I don't have to prove I belong.

So when somebody makes this choice -- "most programmers are male, so I'll use 'he'" -- their language ceases to just describe reality. It creates reality, by reminding me that I don't belong. The 'he' is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm not saying that hypothetical female me, or any woman, would change careers over one dodgy pronoun. It's the cumulative effect of many microaggressions that has a disparate impact on women in a male-dominated field.

In software, we literally use programming languages to make things happen, so I am constantly disappointed when other people in my field fail to understand how their language doesn't just describe reality, but also constructs it. In general, the structure of the English language (and other natural languages in which "he" is often used to refer to a generic person) creates a reality in which people are men, and men are people. A man can appear wherever a person is expected, but a woman cannot appear wherever a generic person is expected; women are second-class. Just as if a particular programming language is too awkward to write code in, we can fork it and modify its syntax and semantics, or even create a new language, we do not have to accept this aspect of English. We can choose to use language in a way that reflects what we believe, instead of using it to uphold traditions we find repugnant.

A related example is when somebody uses "guys" to refer to a group of programmers: either in the second person ("hi guys, I have a question") or the third ("oh, the compiler guys at Apple will fix that"). I think this usage implies even more strongly that women ought to be glad to be misgendered, since using "ladies" to address a mixed group would always seem bizarre and, in some circles, would be taken as very insulting.

It costs nothing to say "folks", "y'all", "engineers", or "team" instead of guys. And yet, some people vociferously defend their usage of "guys" in this manner. The benefits of using a gender-neutral collective noun are, through ripple effects, potentially huge. Every time a woman or genderqueer person (especially one who's just starting out) hears someone acknowledge that they know that not all programmers are guys, it's a microprogression: a tiny bit of encouragement. I can't think of what the benefits of continuing to use guys might be, unless you think it's beneficial to continue driving women out of your field.

Margaret Burnett once described what it's like to be a woman studying computer science something like this: "Imagine you walk into a classroom and everybody else is three and a half feet tall. You're the only one who's six feet tall. Would you feel like you ought to be there?" Using "he" or "guys" to refer to programmers of unknown gender creates that same kind of space online -- a space where everybody else is three and a half feet tall and you're not, and you're suddenly reminded of that. It takes a place that was inclusive and -- for no particularly good reason -- makes some people uncomfortable just being there at all.

Especially when talking in a public forum online, you usually don't know who your entire audience is, and you usually don't know if -- at this specific moment -- you could be the difference between reminding someone of the extra work they have to do (just because of their gender) to prove that they're accepted and respected as a programmer, and reminding them that they are just as likely to be a good programmer as anyone else is.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-23 09:41 pm (UTC)
synecdochic: torso of a man wearing jeans, hands bound with belt (Default)
From: [personal profile] synecdochic
This is definitely a regional thing. Where I come from, "you guys" is the wholly gender-neutral second person plural pronoun, my region's version of the South's "y'all", and I wouldn't think twice about addressing, for instance, a group of women as "you guys".

It's possible for people to retrain their region's innate second-person plural, but it's very, very hard, and usually takes moving into another region or spending a great deal of time from another region. It's not just as easy as "stop doing it".

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-23 10:49 pm (UTC)
synecdochic: torso of a man wearing jeans, hands bound with belt (Default)
From: [personal profile] synecdochic

We may be talking at cross definitions here. I'm referring to the sociolinguistic definition: it's used to address groups of men, groups of women, and mixed-gender groups equally, which is what defines a phrase's usage as gender-neutral in the sense I was using it.

I'm not arguing that "default assumption that groups of programmers = male" isn't harmful, I'm saying that for several regional dialects, mostly northeastern, using "you guys" as the second-person plural ("do any of you guys know X") isn't making the default assumption that the group is male, because that's the regional dialect's second-person-plural pronoun and in the dialect, it's used gender-neutrally. I know native speakers of those dialects who have retrained themselves, recognizing that it will be interpreted as gendered by those outside the dialect, but for all that it doesn't 'officially' exist in Standard American English, second-person-plural pronoun is one of those things that's very firmly set by the time someone's out of childhood and very hard to retrain.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-26 05:25 pm (UTC)
burning_ground: (Default)
From: [personal profile] burning_ground
I'll use "you guys" a lot without thinking about it, in casual speech, where it's accepted to be a gender-neutral term. But I'm coming to understand that because one wouldn't call a woman "some guy", and probably wouldn't call girls' night out "hanging with the guys", the plural "guys" actually carries quite a bit of gender baggage. Colloquial usage is hard to affect, but in formal speech and in settings where all people are supposed to be treated as welcome members of the community, even gray area terms with -some- gender baggage in -some- contexts should be switched out in favor of something else. Saying "hey everyone" is slightly more cumbersome than saying "hey guys", but it's not that much harder, and I think the microprogression value is so, so worth it in the long run.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-24 07:01 am (UTC)
lindseykuper: Photo of me outside. (Default)
From: [personal profile] lindseykuper
Well put.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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