THIRD-PERSON SINGULAR “THEY” – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 4

I’m not going to touch on the “correctness” of the use of “they” as a preferred pronoun – I enjoy arguments over prescriptive vs. descriptive use of language, but that’s been done elsewhere.

I want to talk about why the use of “they” to describe an individual (in a gender-neutral sense) has practical uses for everyone; it’s not just useful for trans* and non-binary individuals. That’s not an apology – when we recognise rights for a minority, the change often improves things for everyone.

Scenarios in which third-person singular “they” has its uses:

Number One

So, there’s the obvious reason of “they” being fairly inoffensive if you’re ‘not sure’ of someone’s gender identity (it’s a balancing act between asking and waiting to be told, sometimes – none of us are perfect, and we sometimes find ourselves in social situations that we have no clue how to navigate). It’s better to be vague than wrong in my book.

Number Two

In my work, I deal with colleagues and collaborators from all over the world. Plenty of these people have names that I’ve never encountered before. And the rules that divide names into “masculine” and “feminine” in English don’t necessarily apply elsewhere. Sometimes you just don’t know – especially if you’ve not met yet, or have only ever communicated by email. In this situation, I again go for ambiguity over misgendering – it saves a lot of embarrassment.

Number Three

Now it’s time to get political. Third-person singular “they” is useful for eliminating the default designation of a professional as male. In my line of work, we will talk about “the architect”, “the builder”, “the electrician”, etc, without knowing the individual we’re describing (maybe they’ve not yet been appointed, perhaps we’ve not dealt with them until now for contractual reasons, perhaps we’re talking about a profession in general terms). Trouble is, there’s often a default to male, which

  1. Feeds into the perception that there are “male jobs” and “female jobs”, which belongs in the 1950s;
  2. Is wrong more often than our use of language implies, e.g.

“when you saw the nurse today, what did she say about your [insert embarrassing bodily ailment here]?”

“Er, HE said to put this cream on it and come back in two weeks.”

Number Four

Just, why not? Seeing as we’ve already established that it’s not grammatically heinous (to most of us), we could use it in far more interactions than we presently do. No reason why you couldn’t interchange “he” and “she” with “they” – unless the person you’re describing has expressly said that they (um,) do not want this. We might find its use becoming more commonplace as we step away from the use of pronouns at all (in our work email signatures, and those of many firms, honorifics are omitted completely, and sometimes post-nominals too). Tom Scott has produced a video on this, in the link below. He does a load of other stuff on language and esoteric knowledge – you should check out some of his other stuff if you have the time.

None of us know what the future holds, and we don’t know if there will be a rise in gender non-conformity or an abolition of gender. But what we do know is that we can find ways to address people without putting our foot in our mouth.

SHORT HAIR

I’ve got short hair, and this has been so for the last few years. As a child, I always wanted to chop my long locks off and have more boyish hair. But my parents wouldn’t allow it, seemingly because they had to reinforce the idea that girls are girls, and boys are boys. Another post is due on that topic later. When I left home at 18 (which was the first possible chance I had to do so), I felt unsure and almost guilty about wanting to cut my hair. It seemed to be expected of young ladies to have long hair, and while I don’t consider myself to be particularly ladylike (and I would not want to be) I did want to fit in. Now that I’m older and feel a bit less lost in the world, I’m more comfortable making decisions that may set me apart from other people. But the length of my hair still seems to be contentious. I’ve been told that my hair makes me look like a man (um, I don’t find this offensive but the person who said it did mean it as a pejorative), and that I am not allowed to wear dresses anymore (I know, even though I’m a grown-up in my 30s, other people still feel the need to tell me how to dress).

The haircut before this one was even more extreme, ranging from crew cut to a rather stylish Tintin-esque quiff. It was guaranteed to attract strange looks from people; the best response to these is to just stare right back at them. But finding a hairdresser willing to actually cut my hair like that was a marathon. The most blatant one was a man who wanted to check with my boyfriend that it was ok for him to cut my long hair off (WTF????), but I’ve been to numerous others who continually ask me if I’m really sure and talk me out of getting the haircut I actually want. I’ve found a unisex hairdresser that I’d ordinarily praise for their ability to look beyond gender and see what the customer actually asks for.  However, they’ve taken on a new stylist who doesn’t really seem to get it – I told them what I wanted and they talked me out of it, and then when I conceded to a haircut less likely to offend Joe Public’s delicate sensibilities, they hacked away at it with scissors, bemoaning the fact that if I wanted it shorter they’d have to use clippers.  Uh, yeah, that’s what I want you to do, 1970s-man.  Maybe time to find a new hairdresser – but it’ll be tough.  Many barbers in Manchester state explicitly that they are gents barbers, and even if I can find somewhere to give me a “man’s haircut”, I know I’ll get charged twice as much just because of my biological sex.

More disappointingly, I discussed the possibility of going shorter with Mr. Science Gentleman, who isn’t too keen on the idea.  Why?  Because he’d find it “intimidating”.  I don’t even.

TOILET ETIQUETTE

Sometimes the topic of bathroom segregation comes up in my office – we work on a variety of buildings with varying needs and accessibility and diversity policies. I have heard resistance to change expressed, not always in complimentary or logical terms, but I really like the way that more progressive firms and institutions (universities are especially good at this) are making changes that allow inclusivity and convenience for as many people as possible.

Current students of the University of Manchester were invited to provide their opinions on the new engineering campus development, and one of the topics for discussion is what the toilet arrangements should be like. I’m hugely in favour of the set-up in the Students Union, which has one large toilet with cubicles only, that people of any gender can use. There are also larger accessible toilets at ground floor level. If people wish to use gender-specific bathrooms, ‘male’ and ‘female’ toilets are available on the upper levels of the building, just off of a central core.

We also covered cultural considerations, like how overseas students may react to a Western loo. It might seem like an odd thing to think, and you might cry ‘discrimination’ at face value – but the fact is that there are a lot of international students in Manchester (this is good!), and there is huge variation in toilet type and etiquette across the world. Two of the more common ones I’ve heard about are that in some cultures it’s more usual to squat over the toilet (by standing on the seat) rather than sitting down, and that some places have less robust plumbing systems so used toilet paper would go in a bin rather than down the loo (ick). In most places that I’ve worked, this problem is gotten round by displaying polite notices on how to use the facilities. It’s clear that they’re not aimed at any person or group in particular, and it’s far better than the alternative, which I encountered in one office that I worked in.

There were literally (several) emails sent around the office asking people to not pee all over the floor in the toilets. In addition to that, people had to be advised how to correctly use a sink and dishwasher. It’s like as soon as people step outside of their own homes, they forget how a kitchen and bathroom are supposed to operate. Not sure how much better it would have worked out if the issues had been pre-empted, but it is pretty astonishing that it even got that far in the first place. It was even to the point that the ladies loo was protected by an access code, not for reasons of safety and privacy, but because the Wanton Widdler decided to have a go in the ladies as well! The office was about 95% male, so there was a good chance that it was a bloke, but I really don’t think that dirty behaviour is actually gender specific. That’s one stereotype that I’ve heard trotted out time and time again, and it needs to stop. The lock did seem to stop the culprit, though.

ENCOURAGING WOMEN INTO ENGINEERING

This is a thorny topic for me. On the one hand, yes, this country has a shortage of engineers, and a great way to resolve that is to encourage more women to take up roles in this field. On the other, I think that a lot of the highly-publicised profiles of women in STEM careers are not representative of the experience of most women who work in these fields. And the statistics support this. Women in comparable STEM roles to men are paid less, valued less, and progress more slowly. How could I recommend that sort of future to another person?

And then we face a chicken and egg issue. Without a representative workforce, the prevailing culture will remain unchallenged and unchanged. But the workforce will not be more representative until there are more women and minorities working there.

The UK government has been advised on the consequences of not supporting more jobs in engineering, and it is recognised that if women do not enter or remain in the profession, we are effectively cutting the talent pool in half.

The Guardian featured an article (link below) promoting careers in engineering to females. This is great for visibility, but it really doesn’t tell the whole story.

What’s it like to be a woman in the engineering industry?

All of the women in this piece talk about the exciting things they do in their work, which is great. Engineering can be fulfilling and rewarding, and fun. But the politics, culture and personalities in the industry can get in the way of actually getting the job done.

One of the engineers in the piece talks about proving herself in a male-dominated industry. This is something I’ve encountered many times. Why should women have to prove themselves any more than men should? Or have to work harder than men for the same pay? Oh, except it isn’t the same pay.

Another says “My advice is do not hide your femininity at work and relish in your different perspective – act on what you believe is important”. Two things: most successful women I know in my sector of engineering act very masculine. And if you do look quite feminine, people will comment on it. And if you act quite butch, people will comment on it. So either way you’re damned, but if you try to be one of the boys you’re more likely to succeed. Another: “relish in your different perspective”. Well, it would be great if different perspectives were acknowledged, but in my experience groupthink is encouraged and anyone with a contrasting idea is swiftly put in their place. Where are these workplaces that encourage this sort of thing? Because I haven’t found one yet.

Someone else says “There are many women where I work in very senior roles which just goes to show that gender does not affect ambition and that you should always aim high.” Well, I agree with the last part. Ambition is genderless. But I’m not seeing the women in exec-level roles. I attend events specifically for women in engineering, which have a core regular attendance of maybe 30 people. I enjoy meeting other female engineers, hearing success stories and about other projects. But that’s just a small handful of people. How many other engineers out there are male? Women make up just 9% of engineering professionals in the UK.

“You’re not treated differently and gender isn’t an issue”. That may be the case where you work, and I’m very happy for you. I wish that all workplaces were the same.

“I think it’s fantastic to see more and more women joining our ranks in what used to be a traditionally male industry”. Well, yes, that’s the overall goal. Things are changing, but we’re really not at the point where we can say that it used to be a traditionally male industry. 91% male is a pretty overwhelming figure.

I suppose it makes me sad that we’re still having these conversations these days, or that there is a need to target women specifically to encourage them into STEM subjects. If the playing field were truly level, everyone would feel welcomed and we wouldn’t be talking about certain groups being “turned off” by certain subjects. I feel that very little has changed with regard to the perception of women in my (rather niche sector) over the last 15 years. The only place I’ve truly felt an equal is at University, being on a fantastic undergrad program with great tutors and the chance to shine. A step into the world of work was a shock. Of course study is different from the workplace, but I was totally unprepared for the marginalisation and disillusionment that I experienced. It seems that my goals become further and further out of reach, while they are easily attainable by others around me.

A final thought. This article in the Harvard Business Review details research carried out on women’s career trajectories, and finds that common beliefs about women’s career progressions are unfounded.

Rethink What You “Know” About High-Achieving Women

It’s also referenced in this article from NYMAG:

Stop Blaming Women For Holding Themselves Back At Work

MALE & FEMALE BRAINS

One of the things I got to do during my solitary Christmas was watch a lot of videos on YouTube. A favourite channel of mine is TEDx Talks, partly because I’d really like to do one myself one day. I really enjoyed this video from TEDx Jaffa, Are brains male or female? presented by Daphna Joel. It’s related to many of the topics and studies discussed in Cordelia Fine’s book, Delusions of Gender, which I mentioned in an earlier post.

INSPIRATION

The name for this blog came from my four-year-old daughter, who tearfully said to me, “I can’t be a science lady, because I can’t do science”. This filled me with both joy and sadness, because on the one hand I thought the concept of “science ladies” sounded quite sweet (although I usually refer to myself as a scientist, rather than a science lady – for some reason it sounds a bit more professional); and on the other I wondered who had given this idea to a four-year-old child.

There are many articles, papers, and stories in the media about how our attitudes towards women’s abilities and career choices are shaped at a very young age. My current favourite is this one, from The Huffington Post:Powerful Ad Shows What A Little Girl Hears When You Tell Her She’s Pretty

Additionally, this is one of my favourite books on the topic: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine.

In this book, the author describes a systematic review of various studies that consider gender differences, and encourages the reader to think critically about what the outcomes of such studies really tell us. You can buy the book and check out some very detailed customer reviews via the link on the right.

Oh, and you can be a science lady, if you want to. It’s hard work but definitely worth it.