he or she
English has no good solution to a singular gender neutral pronoun when it comes to referring to people. Well it does, but society has deemed the proper grammar solution inappropriate for the modern world. It is considered by Oxford Dictionary grammatically correct to use words such as “he”, “him”, his” to refer to either a male or female when the gender of the subject is unknown. See Oxford Dictionary’s article on “He or She Versus They“. So given that whatever you use, “he”, “he or she”, “s/he”, or “they”, are technically now all acceptable grammatically, all that’s left is to express my own personal opinion on what to use.
I certainly cannot speak for all women, but using three syllables for what can be expressed in one is asinine to me. When I hear someone say, “an engineer must think about his career,” I do not for a moment consider I’m not included in that statement. But when someone says, “an engineer must think about his or her career,” I feel like the speaker cares more about the gender of the engineer than the engineer thinking about their career. (By the way, I have no issue with using “they” and “their” instead of the masculine singular forms, although there are cases where that sounds awkward. See the examples in the Oxford article.)
The worst part about this whole thing, is men have no idea what to do. Almost on a weekly basis I hear something like the following in meetings I attend: “Every systems engineer should be marking his requirements…oh or her requirements with a verification method.” Right at the “…” the speaker makes eye contact with me. That’s when they realize there is a female in the room and I may be offended with the use of the word “his”. I always immediately explain that they just wasted breath.
For some reason I never hear women have this “slip up”. If it’s a speaker at a conference, she smoothly says “he or she” (well the male speakers do, too), and if is a conversation in the office, she almost always just uses the masculine form of the word.
So what? Are these men changing their behavior when there is a woman in the room versus not? That doesn’t seem logical. If we’re trying to create a gender neutral workplace, people should speak with the same grammar no matter what the gender of the audience. Ok, so you might say, “That is what is wrong with men today. They don’t just automatically include women in their speaking.” I think they, in general, do include women in their thinking (the same way I don’t feel excluded from use of the singular masculine form, they don’t feel like they’re excluding me). The problem I believe is that everyone is so conditioned to be extra careful about how women feel, that when one is in the room, they suddenly fear that the woman doesn’t recognize she is included and so they modify their speaking to be extra clear about it. It’s not about what men think, it’s about men making women feel like they think a certain way. All that does is move gender to the forefront of the conversation. That is disruptive to the conversation, irrelevant to engineering, and singles me out as a female instead of an engineer.
So, men, here’s what I have to say: I appreciate you trying, but you’re only perpetuating the problem. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do because no matter what you’ll piss some woman off and if you piss the wrong woman off, you could be in a dicey situation. But if I’m in the room, just speak how you would speak if I wasn’t.
- Posted in: on my soapbox