What’s wrong with assuming that programmers are male?

Cross-posted to my dreamwidth.org blog

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.

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About Tim Chevalier

Tim has written Haskell code on the job, worked on the Rust programming language at Mozilla, and been a graduate student in computer science at Portland State University and at UC Berkeley. He is currently a Senior Member of Technical Staff at Heroku, whose opinions his writing does not represent. He likes cats and bikes. His personal blog is at http://tim.dreamwidth.org/

17 thoughts on “What’s wrong with assuming that programmers are male?

  1. Curly

    “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.”
    - Tim Chevalier

    Quotable!

    1. Beth

      I wish Computer Science were willing to use standard terms, like “dialectic”, from other fields that accurately describe CS concepts. It would make communicating with computer scientists much easier!

  2. Anonymouse

    It’s not just that “he” makes women think we don’t belong; it also reinforces to MEN that only men belong.

    I haven’t encountered this so much in programming (mostly because I don’t spend time with programmers who aren’t my friends), but I’ve encountered a LOT of pushback by male gamers who have taken the default “he” to heart. To them, female gamers LITERALLY don’t exist so I must be lying when I talk about having been a gamer all my life.

    1. Beth

      My boss used to say things like “what’s up dude – dette?”
      It was awkward, but I took refuge in him clearly having his assumptions challenged every time he talked to me. I eventually realized I was mostly feeling awkward for him, and he deserved every bit of awkwardness.

  3. Lee

    While I agree with the point you’re making here, I do want to mention one caveat. I am female. I grew up in the Detroit area. In the regional dialect there, “guys” is a gender-neutral term which is applied equally to all-male, all-female, or mixed groups. It would be very difficult for me to break this speech pattern, which is deeply ingrained. There are a lot of other people in my position, and some of them (including me for 20 years) are doubtless programmers. Just something to be aware of.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      On my blog, I wrote:

      ‘If you wouldn’t address a group of men and women as “you ladies” where you come from, then it’s not actually gender-neutral.’

      and

      “I mean that even in places where, descriptively, it’s used to address groups of people regardless of gender, it’s still not neutral in that it reflects and strengthens the assumption that women ought to be glad to be misgendered, whereas men shouldn’t.”

      No matter how much “guys” gets used to address groups of people of any gender in whatever geographical region you come from, every time you use it, you still communicate the belief that a woman ought to be pleased to be misgendered as male (since being male is more desirable than being female), while a man need not be pleased — and indeed, is justified in feeling insulted — to be misgendered as female.

      So is it worth it to change a deeply ingrained habit? Well, it depends on whether or not it’s worth it to withdraw support for male supremacy through the everyday language you use.

  4. Suzanne

    I grew up saying “you guys” to refer to any group of more than one person. I think I remember asking my parents about it once when I was very little, but their explanation that, “Oh, it’s just like saying ‘y’all’, and can refer to boys or girls” was enough to make me shrug and accept it. It became automatic for me, and I came to say it by habit without even thinking about it.

    I was already an adult and reading feminist literature before anyone pointed out to me that it’s kind of weird to say “guys” when referring to a mixed group of people. My initial reaction was, “But that’s not what I mean! I just… Oh.”

    Personally, by my upbringing, I’m not bothered by being included in a generic “you guys” (which somehow feels different than, “the guys over in [department]“, which does tweak me). But knowing that it bothers other people is enough to convince me that I need to retrain myself. “Folks” is my new go-to, though I still catch myself at “you gu-” more often than I care to admit.

    1. sparrow

      I don’t take issue with people whose informal language use includes “these guys” and “these dudes” as gender-neutral terms, but I would encourage them to be thoughtful and cautious about these terms. I mean, I am often one of those people, at least as regards the usage of “guys,” and I make less of an effort to speak inclusively when among people who I believe are going to know what I mean. I think of “guys” as “people,” and “dudes” as “male people,” but I know that some West Coast folks use these words the other way around.

      It is more important to speak inclusively about groups that can hear you – “D’you understand this guy’s email? idk what they want” might actually be misgendering the person who emailed, but if I’m discussing that email with a colleague and not the person, it’s relatively harmless. A lot of synonymous terms – this user, this client, this person, this one – feel more formal and/or have more syllables, which is why I have had mixed success with using “guy” less in the context of “random stranger.”

      It is more important to be accurate in content that is going to go outside your immediate community. A lot of people, uh, like, misuse words and use various sorts of slang in verbal exchanges and instant messages to a single recipient when they would be (and should be) more careful in writing for a large audience. For the sake of clarity, accuracy, and inclusion, ina message visible to more than a few people, that former example would go something like “Do you know what this client is referring to? I am having trouble understanding the email that the client sent.”

      tl;dr: when writing to the whole internet, absolutely prioritize inclusive and accurate language, when writing to a small number of people, laziness is less bad.

  5. T

    Something which I find even more disturbing, at a recent conference in Paris.
    The introductory note started like this: “Ladies and Gentlemen”. Then – to be witty, I suppose – he rectified: “I mean, Gentlemen” – even though I (obviously woman) was sitting in the first row.
    It’s one thing to omit by using a generic word, and a completely different one to explicitly exclude (by correction!).
    This was the first time I actually felt inadequate in this specific tech-community.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      That’s pretty terrible :- What I’ve heard pretty often is “Hi guys — and girls, I guess, if you want to be really precise about it, lol!!!!”, as if the person can’t just be inclusive but has to make a big show of being inclusive (which, of course, has the opposite effect). But literally denying that you were there is even worse.

  6. Maki

    What is your take on starting sentences with “Man, …” regardless of the gender of the person you’re speaking to? I never thought about it until I was talking with a trans woman friend of mine who’d just started transitioning. Now I’m working it out of my vocabulary. (Along with calling my friends, regardless of gender, my “bros.”)

    1. Suzanne

      Huh… I’ve never thought of “man” as a noun of direct address in that context. I’ve always thought of it along the same lines as “jeepers”, “geez”, “for real”, “holy cow”, etc.–basically, a non-sweary exclamation to add emphasis to what you’re about to say. E.g. “Man, that chili was spicy” is equivalent to “Sweet mercy, that chili was spicy”.

      But maybe that’s just me…?

      Either way, I would certainly stop using it around anyone I knew was bothered by it.

  7. David Stern

    Hi Tim, great post! When I was a grad student at Indiana University (back in the late 90s), I went to a lecture by Douglas Hofstadter specifically talking about the emerging trend of using the word “guys” when referring to groups that include women (and how this promotes a sexist viewpoint). It was a great lecture, and he went really deep on it. It’s interesting — he got many of the same comments from women in the audience that you’re getting here, and many commented that the same trend was happening in their native (non-English) language.

    I must admit, though, that I’m somewhat ambivalent. To my ear, the word “guys” conveys a level of closeness and inclusion that is not conveyed by the alternatives such as “folks”. Certainly if we do promote alternatives, we should encourage their use for unmixed groups as well — but it still seems like there is a cost.

    I definitely get your point though. Undoubtedly, the reason that “guys” sounds different to my ears is because of the pervasive belief that groups of men can gel in ways that mixed groups cannot. And probably the language does re-enforce that belief to an extent.

  8. cofiem

    I have a question about changing the meaning of the word guys to be neutral, as opposed to using it for a group of any people, when the word out of context is still taken to be gendered. Any comments regarding things I can read about this? Opinions on whether this is desirable?

    1. Tim Chevalier

      Why change the meaning of “guys” to be gender-neutral? Instead, why not decide to start using “ladies” as gender-neutral instead?

      If there’s a reason you have in mind for using “guys” that way that wouldn’t apply equally well to the word “ladies”, then that answers your question.

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