why I refer to everyone as “she” when I write

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After I was on Marketplace Money last week to talk about bad bosses, apparently they got some letters asking why I kept referring to all bad bosses as “she.” Here’s the transcript from their follow-up this week:

DEB CLARK: So other people who wrote in about this segment made note to the fact that our guest, Alison Green, kept referring to bad bosses as “she.” Tracey Powling from Indianapolis, Ind. that was an unfair association.

TRACEY POWLING: There are plenty of bad male bosses out there. I recently worked for one who would write me up for his mistakes. What makes it worse, this boss owned the company.

TESS VIGELAND: Couldn’t agree more and in fact, I did ask about that during the interview. It ended up on the cutting room floor, but I did point out to Alison that she kept talking about women bosses. And so I asked if there was a difference in how you should deal with a male or female boss.

ME: I don’t know that there’s a dramatic gender difference. I always try to be sort of gender neutral when I’m in the workplace and forget that I’m a woman. Because I don’t want people dealing with me as a woman first.

VIGELAND: Yup, amen.

I should probably explain this, because I do it in my writing here too (as some of you have commented on from time to time). In fact, I do it in my writing everywhere.

I hate having to write out “he or she” every time. It’s unwieldy. And saying “they” when you’re talking about one person is gender-neutral but grammatically incorrect. And when you pick “he” or “she” randomly, people read all kinds of things into which gender you use when. “S/he” is an option, but it feels like an abbreviation rather than a real word and I think it interrupts the flow of text.

A few years ago, when I was writing Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager’s Guide to Getting Results with my co-author, the fantastic Jerry Hauser, we ran into this and just settled on using “she” throughout the book. There have been centuries of people using “he” similarly, after all, and it feels kind of nice to push a female presence into language since women were left out of it for so long.

That got “she” ingrained in my head, and now I use it automatically when I write. And apparently I also do it when I talk, as evidenced by that Marketplace interview.

But my use of “she” shouldn’t be construed as anything other than an attempt to resolve the “he/she” conundrum that has plagued writers for years. I don’t think there’s a single behavior that only women do in the workplace, or that only men do. (There may be broad patterns, particularly historically, but generalizations become a lot less relevant when you’re dealing with real individual people. God knows there are plenty terrible bosses of both genders.)

And frankly, having done this for years now, I think having everyone just use their own gender as their generic pronoun makes a lot of sense and could solve the whole problem.

Posted in me

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Erica

    I really like the idea of using your own gender as the gender neutral pronoun. Except, you do run into the issue of inserting your own gender as the author into the piece. While that works here, it may not work as well in fiction.

    But – until we come up with a good gender neutral pronoun and it has widescale adoption (not gonna happen), it’s as good as any.

    All that being said, I do like the idea of “she” taking over as the default for awhile. It’s still sexist, but maybe it will help normalize some of our preconceived norms?

  2. Mary

    I noticed that the late David Foster Wallace also used she as his generic pronoun in his essays and I think it’s exactly that: normalizing the idea that we when talk about a person, the default isn’t a man.

  3. jt

    I like this. I’m a guy and I often use “they” ungrammatically (and I’m aware of this) in less than 100% formal writing. I wish that became so common it was accepted as correct.

    Also, just started reading this site a few weeks ago and have to say it’s great. A great resource plus interesting questions and reader comments. Thanks so much.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Thank you! Re: reader comments — lately, I’ve been really aware that our comments section is amazing — consistently smart, thoughtful, engaged commenters, with a surprising lack of the lame, silly, or overly combative comments that you often find in comment sections. I am actually weirdly proud of that.

      (By way of contrast, Yahoo Finance sometimes posts my articles, and the comments there are quite different.)

    2. Natalie

      It might interest you to know that the singular “they” is a lot older than most people think. It’s not definitively incorrect.

      1. Talyssa

        I was going to mention this too – I actually tend to go this route deliberately in an effort to be gender neutral. I personally think its the most likely to become acceptable in widespread usage.

      2. Joe

        Natalie beat me to the punch, but I am a strong advocate for the singular they. I’m actually in the process of preparing a talk about it for Nerd Nite some time, in the hopes of getting more information out there and maybe even swaying a few people to my cause.

  4. Dave

    I long wish “they” would become the grammatically correct gender neutral pronoun. They sounds natural; everything else seems forced.

    (I’ve usually perceived “she” as an overtly political statement–sort of a post-’60s attempt to the right the past wrongs of masculine default pronouns. After reading your post, I guess this perception was somewhat correct, no?)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I guess it is a sort of statement, although I’m not trying to beat people over the head with it. It just seemed like the thing to do. It’s funny, I don’t even think about it like that anymore because it’s become such habit.

      1. a.b.

        Too bad it’s assumed to always be a political statement– which just validates the need to see it used as a default sometimes. I hope I live to see the day when the use of a female pronoun isn’t political.

  5. Wilton Businessman

    I just figured all the bad bosses were women and all the good ones were men. (just kidding, I don’t want to start another land line argument)

  6. Michelle

    I do this in my academic writing. To be completely gender neutral/equal, I would suggest switching equally between using “she” and “he.” But, yes, since writers have historically referred to a person as “he” (and have meant it to mean women or men). And of course you could always say “the boss,” “a person,” etc.

    Either way, more power to you! I always thought you were doing this as a way of going against the norm and found it so refreshing!

    I can see how someone who doesn’t frequent your blog would associate your discussion of a bad boss to a woman. If you only used “he” people would probably think you’re sexist; you can’t win. Women in power are continually judged harsher for their gender.

    Anyways, thanks for bringing this up! I think it raises awareness.

  7. radhi

    I never associated your posts with any gender regardless of the usage of “she.” I guess it’s weird to me that people get caught up in that… I just don’t think it’s that big of a deal! The bigger picture of your advice and your blog in general, however, are definitely a big deal! I’ve been reading for a few months and find your advice & viewpoint refreshing, unique & immensely helpful. Thank you very much!

  8. Anon y. mouse

    Makes perfect sense to me! I think I noticed that you use ‘she’ by default, but it reads smoothly, and I know what you mean. I’ve read a number of psychology related books that have a note at the beginning saying that both genders engage in the behaviors described in the book, but English doesn’t have a good generic pronoun, and statistically a majority of the people described are male/female, therefore the writer is using that one by default. I’ve always appreciated that approach, although I wish we lived in a culture where the explanation wasn’t necessary.

  9. Coral Sheldon-Hess

    “They” is not, strictly speaking, incorrect to use as a singular. Shakespeare, Austen, and many others have done it, and a prescriptive writer of a grammar book is to blame for the “rule” against it.

    I know Wikipedia isn’t always the best source (believe me, as a librarian, I know), but this article is well-researched and very thorough, if you’re interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they.

    I also used to avoid using “they” as a singular, but I have embraced it.

    1. Stu

      I’m not really convinced by the example sentences on that Wikipedia page — seems that most of them had something of a plural meaning. Are they the best examples they could come up with?

      I try to just use ‘he’, whether the situation is positive or negative, and educate anyone who complains.

  10. Suzanne Lucas

    I tend to alternate he and she. But, that doesn’t make people happy either. When I wrote 9 Times Your HR Manager Should be Fired, I wrote reason one as He, reason two as She, etc.

    I still got nasty comments saying, “Why did you write all the bad HR managers as females? That is so sexist.”

    Clearly the person was looking to be offended,and didn’t respond after I pointed out that a. most HR manages are female and b. in 9 reasons I’d used he 4 times and she 5 times.

    I just really think people need to stop whining and worrying about it. I think using one or the other all the time is fine. I think switching between the two is fine. I think using “they” as singular drives me nuts.

    1. Naama

      My guess is people don’t even notice “he,” so of course the bad female managers stand out more. Bad male managers are simply read as bad managers; bad female managers are bad FEMALE managers, OH MY GOODNESS, how sexist! Tsk!

      I guess it’s a good thing people are looking out for that, though, even if they’re misguided. People being stupid in an attempt to have inclusive language are better than people being stupid because they think “psh, girls can’t manage.”

  11. Josh S

    I know that many have already expressed their desire for “they” to become more popular and grammatically acceptable, and I agree. I take a slightly different spin on why “they” ought to be acceptable, however.

    For the last several decades, we have been taught that it is grammatically correct for a pronoun to agree with its antecedent in both gender and number. When a pronoun applies to a specific person, this is easy: “Sam is sad that he lost the game. Susan is happy that she got a new puppy. Sam and Susan are angry that they got swindled.”

    When a pronoun applies to an indefinite antecedent, it is more difficult to make both gender and number agree: “A boss is good if [he/she/they/it] gives proper feedback to [his/her/their/its] employee. The employee is good if [he/she/they/it] take what is given to [him/her/their/it].” Historically, we have been taught that it is more important to ensure that number agrees with the antecedent than it is for the gender to agree with the antecedent. That is, if there is one boss (a singular, gender-neutral noun), it is more important to use a singular pronoun than it is to be gender-neutral.

    In English, we do not have a singular, gender-neutral pronoun (although Coral brings up an interesting point with the “singular they”). Nor do we assign gender to our nouns (unlike Spanish, in which every noun has a gender assigned), except in peculiar situations (e.g. when talking about cars and boats).

    In my opinion, we ought to shift from placing the most importance on number-agreement to putting it on gender-agreement in situations where it is not possible to make both agree. Because of this, I think it’s just fine to say, “A boss is good if they give proper feedback to their employees,” so long as there is consistency in the implementation.

    Since I’m sure you’ll ask, I am not, nor have I ever been, an English teacher or editor.

    1. Josh S

      P.S. If you prefer to keep using “she” as a generic term, that’s fine too. I’m not particularly a grammar-nazi, either. :)

  12. Nichole

    I spend a lot of time reformatting sentences to make them plural to avoid “he or she,” but the occasional they gets through. All of the attempts at gender neutral pronouns I’ve seen have been hopelessly awkward. Maybe if we can get a celebrity to use one, it will catch on. Come on, if “bling” made it into circulation, we can get a good functional neuter pronoun going.

  13. Nathan A.

    I really hate having to decide which gender to write when talking about the third person singular to someone. I think “she” is a nice, safe option as long as it’s used globally (and not incidentally placed in a way that may infer bias).

    Of course, you can’t win no matter what you do. “He/she” comes off as sexist or derogatory (I guess?), and “they” is grammatically incorrect.

    One of the ways I get around this if I were illustrating a point and needed to assign a gender to the subject matter is that I usually stick to the title of the subject being described. So, if I were talking about a boss (but I did not know the gender), I would actively avoid using the third person singular. Instead I would try to use “the boss”, instead of “s/he”:

    – If I were talking to the boss about my problems, I would assume that she would know what I am talking about.

    -If I were talking to the boss about my problems, I would assume that the boss would know what I am talking about.

    I don’t know how this will fly with others, but I figure it’s a hat to try on.

  14. Dawn

    I struggle with the “she/he” thing, too. I gravitate towards “they,” but most of the time I can work my way around it.

  15. Henning Makholm

    I usually agonize way too much about how to refer to a person of unknown (or indeterminate) gender — except when I comment here. Then I just write “he” with happy abandon, because I can always justify it as countering the otherwise prevalent (here) tradition that when you speak about a generic person, the default assumption is a woman!

    I like your proposal of just using one’s own gender. It’s nice and symmetric. Of course, the symmetry will not be very apparent as long as everyone is not doing it.

  16. a.b.

    I really like the idea of using your own gender as your default. And that is harder for trolls to argue with.

    But– one of the reasons I read your blog is because your writing makes such an effort to break people of their tendency to assume a person in power is male. I have the same problem sometimes in that assumption.

    Anytime I talk about my boss to someone who doesn’t know her, they assume she is a man. It is very jarring because this happens almost every time. If anyone thinks this isn’t a problem, have them take the Gender-Career AIT test:

    https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/selectatest.html

  17. Val

    When I was working as a legal assistant, I once changed all the gender references in a lease agreement to “her” and “she” and my boss nearly went apoplectic. It was a good ole boys firm, where all the attorneys were men and all the support staff were women. I had to change everything back to a masculine-referenced phrasing, but not before having a good chuckle.

  18. Sara

    The way I’ve always dealt with the gender problem in formal writing is by saying “he (or she)” the first time and “he” thereafter, which is something one of my high school English teachers taught us to do. The “(or she)” is then implied for the rest of the piece. I think people who want to find reasons to be offended will do it no matter what, but at least this way it’s clear that whichever pronoun I am using is intended to represent a person of either gender.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’m not offended by that, but I do think that it’s probably not the best path because it subtly reinforces already-existing biases about gender — especially when talking about people in positions of power, like bosses, as we often do here.

      1. Sara

        What I mean is a writer can use whichever pronoun she (or he) wants to throughout the piece, and putting the other one in parentheses at the beginning can help demonstrate that, for example, you’re not suggesting that all bad bosses are female.

      2. Sara

        p.s. By “people who want to find reasons to be offended” I mean the folks who have a problem with you using “she” as your pronoun of choice. Those people won’t be happy no matter what you do.

        p.p.s. I love your blog and refer everyone I know to it :)

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Thank you! That’s so nice to hear!

          (And don’t worry, I didn’t think you were implying that I’m one of those looking-to-be-offended people!)

  19. Gillian

    What a great discussion topic! I also just can’t do “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, and I want to create an entirely new word that serves this purpose in the English language. “He or she” gets bulky, so I like the method of just using your own gender pronoun. I had a (female) English teacher in high school who encouraged all her students to do this, saying we should put the female voice in there with the ever-present male voice. It would be great if we got to the point where no one even noticed which one you used!

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            By erasing women from whatever’s being discussed, and reinforcing gender-based power differences in society. There’s a relationship between language and social equality.

            1. Stu

              ‘He’ doesn’t ‘erase women'; it can be used as a gender-neutral pronoun. It can be used to talk about powerful people and non-powerful people.

              The only problem here is people’s ignorance, and unwillingness to learn.

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