Use inclusive pronouns

The Practical

Use inclusive pronouns when talking about roles or users. For instance, use "the user" or even "she" instead of assuming "he". It might take some effort, but it's worth it. 

The Story

A couple months ago, Jake joined my team. On his first week, we were discussing various user journeys and I heard him say, "If the user clicks on the submit button, she'll be directed to the confirmation page."

I was shocked (and very happy). I had never heard anyone use the female gender when discussing a generic user. As soon as he said it, I felt instantly acknowledged. Then I started thinking about how many times I've heard the male default and felt alienated.

The challenge is that English is a gendered language (although not as gendered as some other romantic languages, which ascribe gender to inanimate objects). There aren't good generic ungendered ways to talk about a person in English. As a counter example, Mandarin has a singular word tā to describe a singular person. The best I've been able to come up with on my own is saying "the user" and the pronoun "they", which doesn't have the best grammar.  But even I slip up on occasion when talking about recruiting for my team, occasionally saying "he" when there's no assumption that role should be filled by a man. In fact, I'd love for it to be a woman. But when women are 1 of 10 for the role being recruited for, I've slipped into unconsciously assuming a male to fill the role. Here, I often correct myself, but feel guilty for my mistake. 

All of this to put even more emphasis on my delight when I heard Jake say "she". 

I decided to ask Jake about how he arrived here, and he said he's been doing it for the last four years: 

There were a lot of gender conversations going on at college, so I felt I should be more conscious of how I thought and spoke about gender. A couple of my computer science textbooks also defaulted to female subjects. This struck me as a great way to build in some automatic empathy, and also to have a benevolent default that I could be sure would not offend. Beforehand, I had actually felt a little strange every time I defaulted to a male subject, even though that was my prior habit.

The adjustment definitely required some ongoing effort. At first, it took very conscious thought to make sure I was being consistent. Lots of weird sentences where I would say things like, "Then he got into her car." But after a few months (I think it did take that long) it became very automatic, and I've spoken like that ever since.

For me, I'm not sure if I feel comfortable always adopting the female subject, but I know I'll be encouraging myself to continue to use inclusive nouns and pronouns. And I was delighted to see Google's recent promotion training include "she" on slides. There are many opportunities around us to second guess our gender assumptions with something as simple as a pronoun. And as Jake says, even if you make a slip, it's worth it to make the adjustment midstream. Someone will notice and likely be very appreciative.