October 2009 archive

He Said, She Said: Gender and Pronouns in Academic Papers

The Feminist Philosophers blog has an interesting post on gender discrimination in philosophy. It raises some important issues and, helpfully, cites some empirical research to support its points. This kind of stuff is crucial for philosophers – and academics of all stripes – to keep in mind. No-one likes being told they’re biased; better to detect and deal with your own biases on your own terms.

man-womanHowever, one aspect that isn’t mentioned in that piece is the use of personal pronouns in academic papers. It has become the fashion over the past couple of decades to frown on the exclusive use of “he” in academic papers. However, it’s not that “she” has replaced “he” in its entirety. Instead, we now have an interesting, and complex, mix.

To see what that mix might look like, I conducted an entirely unscientific experiment on my own repository of over 200 downloaded academic papers, covering topics including animal behaviour, economics, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, political science, political psychology and a number of disciplines of philosophy, namely ethics and philosophy of mind.

I conducted a comprehensive search within these papers for the words “he” and “she”, and the results are quite surprising, even if you did expect to see an imbalance:


“he” – 4,413 instances in 163 documents

“she” – 997 instances in 101 documents

Philosophy only

“he” – 252 instances in 18 documents

“she” – 114 instances in 9 documents

So, of the overall number of personal pronouns used in all my saved academic papers (5,410), 81.6% were “he” and only 18.4% were “she”. That’s some bias.

In philosophy it’s a little more balanced. Of the overall personal pronouns (366), 68.9% were “he” and 31.1% were “she”. However, I should add that a few of my stored papers concern the knowledge argument, a thought experiment that heavily involves a fictitious neuroscientist named “Mary”, so frequent references to her might account for the inflated “she” figure.

I should also add that while many of my stored papers were authored in the last decade, I have a fair number authored prior to 1970, and one would imagine there’d be less awareness of personal pronouns in those authors’ minds.

What does all this mean? Well, I’d like to know. One experiment I haven’t seen done is whether a balanced use of personal pronouns has any impact at all on gender perceptions or gender equality in academia.

I suspect the reason that balanced usage of personal pronouns became an issue at all was because of a social constructionist notion that our language shapes the world around us. Thus, usage of the word “he” to the exclusion of “she” actively contributed to making our world more male-dominated.

As it happens, social constructionism is a thesis to which I do not subscribe, and I suspect many others in academia also hold reservations about the theory. However, I’d be very interested to see some experimental results testing the hypothesis that usage of personal pronouns influences the way we perceive gender equality in academia.

In the mean time, I suggest we might hedge our bets: male lead authors could always use “she” where a pronoun is required that isn’t referring to a specific individual; and female lead authors could always use “he”.

Then, we’ll have parity on the day we have the same number of male as female academics publishing papers. And until that day, if social constructionism is correct, we’ll be influencing social reality in such a way as to encourage more women in academia. And if social constructionism isn’t correct, at least we have a simple model that doesn’t rely on our poor randomisation abilities.