I’ve dedicated October to a little experiment — one that’s turning out to be surprisingly difficult, even though it should be incredibly simple. Anyone can do this experiment, so you might like to give it a try and explore how you get on. Here’s how it works:
when you see or talk about someone or an animal whose gender you don’t know, refer to them asshe.
That’s all there is to it.
Here are some examples from my life this week.
- …and this cyclist just about collided with me. She swerved at the last moment …
- Your dog’s very gorgeous. What’s her name?
- I admire the driver of that huge truck: she has amazing backing skills.
- See that helicopter over there? She [the pilot] seems to be practicing her hovering skills.
And yet, it’s not. The temptation to say
he is very strong. It’s what we do, after all, especially if the person’s doing something we strongly associate with males, such as driving a huge truck or flying a helicopter (though my friend Maria would have things to say about that).
And when it comes to animals: do you tend to assume a dog is male and a cat female?
A side note about dogs: my partner and I have two small dogs, sister and brother, female and male. One’s substantially larger than the other. Guess which one strangers assume is the male.
It’s tempting to be inwardly certain that the driver of a huge truck would be male and so to refer to the person as
he, but in a country like New Zealand where women have a fair amount of freedom there’s no legitimate reason to think that all drivers of huge trucks are male. Ditto with helicopter pilots or any other thing you can think of.
As I reflect on this every day I find it really highlights for me the sexist assumptions that are built in to our lives. It draws my attention to our tendency to see those with agency as male, to see males as dominant in some way, even if it’s just in number. Sometimes it feels plain wrong to say
she, even when there’s absolutely no good reason for it to be wrong. Often I just forget and have to correct myself.
If you decide to give this experiment a go, I’d love to hear how you get on.