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

Published by timdean on

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.


Jonathan Weinberg · 13th October 2009 at 1:15 pm

One methodological worry: it sounds like you might not have had a way, short of reading the papers & tabulating the instances in situ, of distinguishing _arbitray_ pronouns (the sort you’re interested in here) from actually _referential_ ones, I.e., ones that pick out actual human beings, such as past philosophers, contemporary interlocutors, and the like. Given the disproportionate gender ratios in the disciplines themselves, one would expect the latter sort of pronouns to be distributed with a stron slant towards “he”, without telling us anything about the ratios of the former sort.

Tim Dean · 13th October 2009 at 1:18 pm

Good point. Indeed, I expect the methodological problems with my unscientific experiment to be manifold. But even accommodating a fair number of referential pronouns, there does seem to be a very large imbalance.

I’d love to see a more comprehensive (and actually scientific) study done on pronouns – *and* their effects – in academic papers.

jonathan weinberg · 13th October 2009 at 2:48 pm

Welllll… I really do think that we just don’t know how to factor that out. We just don’t know what a proper “even accommodating…” result would be. Here’s a way of thinking about it, with some super-rough numbers: suppose that 75% of the pronoun tokens are referential, and 25% are arbitrary. And suppose that 75% of the people referred to in philosophy papers are males — and this probably overestimates the incidence for women, unfortunately, when one figures how little they are going to be referred to in papers that draw on historical figures.

That would mean that of the 366 pronoun tokens you recorded in the philosophy papers, 275 would be referential, and of them, 206 male and 69 female. And that would mean that of the 91 arbitrary tokens … 46 would be male and 45 would be female.

Those are pretty informal guestimates, obviously, but you could probably select a small handful of philosophy papers at random and use them to generate a somewhat more principled estimate of the ratios in question.

Richard Zach · 15th October 2009 at 3:39 am

I suppose you didn’t look at what was said about “her”. I find that often when using “she” instead of “he” in philosophical texts the authors send exactly the wrong message: Consider “Someone holding the opposing view might disagree. She might argue … But that would be mistaken.”

Tim · 15th October 2009 at 8:52 am

I’m afraid my unscientific experiment was conducted in about 10 minutes, and without oversight from an ethics committee. So I don’t doubt there are many things it neglected to include.

You’re suggesting authors often use “she” to represent the wrong or opposing argument? Do you think that’s intentional? Or an example of unintentional bias showing through? Is it only male authors who do this? I can see more experiments – unscientific or otherwise – on the horizon…

Richard Zach · 15th October 2009 at 3:07 pm

Oh, I hove no idea. It’s just something I noticed: when most of the people you refer to using personal rponouns are fictional people holding views you criticize, and you use “she” in these cases to counteract bias against women, it doesn’t really have the intended effect.

James Sweet · 21st October 2009 at 4:43 am

Hah! Clever idea.

I’ve started trying to mix up pronouns a bit because I feel in some abstract way that it is The Right Thing To Do(TM), but I share your skepticism that it has any significant real world impact on gender perceptions. Maybe it does, but I have trouble buying it.

What I don’t doubt is that it’s extremely irritating to women. What really drove this point home for me was when I was preparing for the birth of my first child — a son — and I noticed that in a lot of the literature about pregnancy and parenting of an infant, the female pronoun dominates..! (I don’t have any data to support this, so take this as only my subjective impression) It eventually started to become a little grating for me, because of course I knew my child was a son, and constantly hearing him referred to as “she” was just…annoying.

Re: The female pronoun representing the strawman/negative example.. I wish I could recall her name, but there was a female columnist for, I wanna say CNN.com but I can’t remember, who I noticed consistently used the female pronoun when speaking of an abstract person in a positive way, and the male pronoun when speaking of a person in a negative way. Once I noticed it, I went back through like five of her columns, and sure enough it was a 100% match. Yow…

So there’s at least one practical instance of the reverse happening, which suggests that the way you postulate probably happens fairly often as well. Bummer…

Christopher Robertson · 18th October 2012 at 3:53 am

What I want to know is why, when referring to an anonymous third party, we can’t just use “they” and “their” rather than “he/she” and “his/her”? Having he OR she seems equally grammatically unwieldly and eye-repelling to me. “When testimony is accepted by an individual,” writes Elizabeth Fricker, “she acquires beliefs.” No, no, no! When testimony is accepted by an individual THEY acquire beliefs! Is it just me who thinks an entire feminist bone of contention has been conjured out of bad grammar???

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