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People = Male. Part 2

Published 10th December, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

The story so far: I’ve taken my grandson to story time at the library, where I am silently boiling as the librarian, as usual, identifies every creature in every game as male.

No one else at story time seems to be as bothered as I am by the insistence on ‘he’ in the library books and the librarian’s games. The young women around me don’t blink at the incessant use of only one pronoun. Are they really unperturbed by all this negation of females? Don’t they worry that it could make their little Cinderellas think they should just sit in the corner doing the cleaning and waiting for the fairy godmother to conjure them up a handsome prince who will whisk them off to happy endings?

I hold off saying anything to the librarian. I want to blow her mind with facts rather than just blowing up at her. And this is what I find.

There are many academic papers, starting in the late 1970s, with names such as:

  • Sex bias in language use: “Neutral” pronouns that aren’t [1] (Moulton et al, 1978)
  • Generic masculine words and thinking [2] (Silveira, 1980)
  • Children’s understanding of sexist language [3] (Hyde, 1984)
  • Using masculine generics: Does generic he increase male bias in the user’s imagery? [4] (Hamilton, 1988)
  • The impact of generic word choices: An empirical investigation of age- and sex-related differences [5] (Switzer, 1990)
  • Generic pronouns and sexist language: The oxymoronic character of masculine generics [6] (Gastil, 1990)
  • Masculine Bias in the Attribution of Personhood: People = Male, Male = People [7] (Hamilton, 1991).

All of these studies show that the use of ‘he’ or ‘him’ is significantly more likely to conjure images of males than of females, putting the lie to the stiffly-defended proposition that ‘he’ is a gender-neutral term.

It’s no coincidence that these papers disturbing fixed notions start to appear in the late ‘70s and tail off in the early ‘90s, following the rise and fall of the second wave of feminism, when authors felt emboldened to question the emperor’s nakedness and the stories that are told to preserve the status quo. Another wave of papers pops up in the 2000s – this time following on the heels of the third wave of feminism in the mid to late 1990s. The papers in this second round are checking on those findings from as much as 30 years previously. A 2003 paper [8] draws on Silveira’s 1980 paper to examine whether her ‘people = male’ hypothesis holds for an ‘animal = male’ hypothesis, that is, whether a gender-neutral stuffed animal is identified as male or female or, um, gender neutral. The conclusion was that there was an ‘animal = male’ bias for children and adults of both sexes, and that this bias persisted even when the adults modelled storytelling about the animal as a female.

A 2009 paper is hesitantly titled ‘Is the generic pronoun he still comprehended as excluding women?’ which yet again finds that yes, the use of ‘he’ does ‘reduce the likelihood of thoughts of females in what are intended to be non-sex-specific instances’ [9].

So I’ve got the research confirming that the bias occurs, but I’m still looking for anything telling me how children are affected by the use of ‘he’ as a generic term. Does the constant repetition of ‘he’ make girls switch off? Disengage? Or ‘just’ feel marginalised, helping them to put others’ needs before their own?

I can see how being female affects your job prospects. A 2012 study entitled ‘Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students’ asked science faculties from a number of universities to rate applications for a laboratory manager position. The ‘applicants’ were randomly identified as male or female. The result? ‘Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.’ [10]

And I can see how being female affects your safety. A 2019 article in The Guardian [11] talks about the gender data gap and shows the dangers for women in assuming men to be the norm, from decisions made on male-based crash-test dummies to male-based standards in the construction industry that put women’s lives at risk.

The author of a 2015 article – a man – picks up the children’s book Dear Zoo and notices for the first time that every animal the zoo sends is male: ‘I sit on the floor reading the book to my 2-year-old and my eyes widen with each turning page.’ As this book’s use of ‘he’ exclusively has always struck me as being particularly heavy-handed, I am horrified to hear this confession, made so lightly. The author of the article proceeds to pick up book after book, discovering – for the first time – all-male casts or male-dominated casts. He notes that ‘hey guys’ grates for his wife (and for me). The author realises that he always uses ‘he’ in gender-neutral situations and by the end of the article has smartly cleaned up his act. He notes that in using the male default ‘we learn that males are important and “normal”, and that females are lesser and abnormal. Female characters then become special because we judge them based on their gender while male characters are judged based on things other than gender, making them more human and multi-dimensional.’ [12]

A 2018 article analyses the hundred most popular children’s books of 2017 and finds that there is a ‘golden gender ratio’. The author adapts – only slightly tongue-in-cheek – the notion of the golden ratio in maths to propose, ‘For every smart/brave/adventurous fictional heroine, the author must supply 1.618 boys.’ [13] The ratio is not one girl to two boys, she argues, because while many books do have one girl to two boys (think no further than Harry Potter) one of the boys has ‘qualities traditionally associated with the feminine, perhaps to soften or camouflage the overtly unequal nature of the ratio’.

A Victorian government web page on gender inequality [14] states that:

  • gender stereotypes affect children’s sense of self from a young age
  • boys receive 8 times more attention in the classroom than girls
  • girls receive 11% less pocket money than boys
  • children classify jobs and activities as specific to boys or girls.

A 2020 article in the Financial Times [15] analyses data that shows that girls are much less likely than boys to aspire to, let alone go into, STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) careers. This is partly attributed to parental and teacher expectations and partly to girls’ inability to see role models in those areas. The lack of women in these roles reinforces ‘the lack of diversity in science’. It also means that women are missing out on higher-paying jobs. They already miss out on higher paying jobs due to discrimination in hiring practices, taking on more domestic duties, spending time out of the labour market for child-rearing, and the lower wages paid in female-dominated occupations (despite similar skill levels to male-dominated occupations). At work women suffer higher levels of harassment and are therefore more likely to leave a job, further disrupting their career. The gender pay gap for full-time total remuneration is currently 20.1% in Australia, meaning that men working full time earn, on average, $25,534 more per year than women who work full time. [16] All of this creates a lower level of superannuation, and a greater likelihood of women experiencing poverty in old age. [17]

So women are paid less, their work is valued less and they end their lives financially worse off than men. Can we blame the use of ‘he’ for all of this?

Jess Hill’s deservedly award-winning book, See what you made me do, is subtitled Power, control and domestic abuse. She spells out the links between those three factors and explains how society grooms young men to see themselves as powerful, as being in control. This sense of power can turn ugly, for a range of reasons, resulting in domestic abuse. Hill talks about society being ‘male-dominated’, ‘male-identified’, ‘male-centred’. She talks about how ‘The pressure for boys and men to prove they’re not “girls” is the propulsion fuel for misogyny.’ [18] p

Read Kathy’s first post with us: ‘People = Male. Part 1’.

Kathy Prokhovnik writes fiction (long form, short stories and microfiction) and non-fiction. Her blog covers all bases. Her story ‘Still life’ was a finalist in the MRP short story competition 2019 and published in We’ll stand in that place and other stories. She was recently awarded a two-week fellowship in the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre 2021 program to work on her second novel, The Dogs.


















[17] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Women’s economic security in retirement, 2017.

[18] Jess Hill, See what you made me do. Black Inc, 2019, p.141.

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