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.