A recent Meta question noted:

One of the community members has approached the moderators with a concern about gendered pronoun usage amongst our Academia members. Specifically, this individual felt that calling out gender in discussion—e.g., "he said…" or "as she commented…"—risks introducing bias and may affect the quality of the discussion.

I am not going to ask whether we should use gender-neutral language when speaking about a user who has not indicated gender through posts, avatar, username, discussions, etc. (That can be discussed at the above-referenced Meta question.)

My question is about what happens if a user, say, User A, doesn't follow that practice, when referring to User B.

In such a case, can a flag be raised, either by User B (wishing to remain gender anonymous on the site), or by a bystander who is concerned that the gender assumption could affect the quality of the discussion?

In other words, should moderators use their gentle influence, behind the scenes, in such a situation?

  • 3
    While I appreciate that you don't want to discuss the assumption here, based on the votes on the linked question, I think its safe to say that your assumption—that the consensus exists in favor of gender-neutral language—is likely incorrect. As such, I'm not sure you want to base the question on that assumption. I would simply ask the question stand-alone: "Should a user be able to raise a flag related to gender assumption, irrespective of other policy here at Academia.SE?"
    – eykanal
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 15:04
  • 3
    I think in order to answer this question, you need to make clear 1) How did User B make User A aware of their individual pronoun preferences? 2) When you say User A doesn't follow that practice, can you be more specific about what you mean? (Responding to a polite request with "I refuse to call you he!" and then persistently misgendering is very different from accidentally forgetting once or twice after being asked or reminded.) 3) What action, specifically, is the hypothetical User B asking the moderators to take in this situation? Certainly any discussion has to include that detail!
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 15:06
  • @ff524 - (1) Suppose User B wishes to remain gender anonymous. How should s/he indicate that? Right now, the only way I know of is by omission. (2) The question asks what can be done if User B suddenly acquires a previously unstated gender, through User B's gender usage. (3) The answer and comment features provide a mechanism for various specific ideas to be proposed and discussed. Specific possible mechanisms can also be articulated and rejected, if appropriate. Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 15:23
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    Woah, we have a meta question about a meta question about pratice on the site. Do we need a meta.meta.academia site? ;-)
    – Flyto
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 18:04
  • 2
    @Simon perhaps you can ask a meta question to see if we need such a site. Then it would be a meta question about a meta question about a meta question ;)
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 18:30
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    @SimonW On the math sites it is always said that meta is idempotent.
    – quid
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 20:42
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    "How should s/he indicate that?" Why do you use "s/he"? Using it is said to reinforce binarism.
    – quid
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 20:49
  • @quid - What's wrong with "he or she" or the more compact version, "s/he"? Are you saying you don't like having to choose between exactly two choices, either "he" or "she"? What pronouns do you recommend using? Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 21:11
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    Yes this is the issue. Not everybody subscribes to the idea that there are merely two options see gender binary. I am not best place to give language advice in English, but in the specific case one could just say: "How should one indicate that?" Or "How should a user indicate that?" Generally I came to use mainly singular they in an abstract setting. There are a variety of other options, I do not know about the relative acceptance and preferences.
    – quid
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 21:39
  • @SimonW this site has been swirling towards the absurd for a few days.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 7:53
  • @quid hah. I had to look up the term, but yes :)
    – Flyto
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 8:32
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    Wait, let me get this straight. X is saying that if Y acknowledges Z's gender in response to Z's post, then the "quality" of the discussion will degrade? I would LOVE to see something to back that idea up. @quid I'm a firm believer in gender being at least trinary. Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 8:03
  • @NZKshatriya - I got a bit lost with your letters, and also I don't know what the third gender is, but maybe it would help if I clarified: sometimes a situation arises in which User B has not indicated a gender, but somebody else, User A, assumes that B is a particular gender. It might be awkward for B to object publicly, and the question is whether a flag can be raised to request help from the moderators. Is that clearer? Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 17:15
  • Third gender is something that happens in nature often, but in humans less so, im not sure of the specific stats of birthrates of true hermaphrodites but it happens. Is the issue of awkwardness in responses due to someone using gender specific references a large issue? Is this a cultural issue? I am actually starting to want to know more about this. Personally, I generally ignore gender specific references. My screennames are ambiguous, I have been referred to as he/she/they. For the record I am male. But if someone calls me she, I don't take offense, nor think it detracts from anythng. Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 19:32
  • @NZKshatriya - I don't know any statistics. I found Amy Bloom's book Normal helpful reading about the gender spectrum. Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 23:23

3 Answers 3


Suppose I am the hypothetical User B in this scenario. I have not previously indicated any gender preference, I wish to remain gender neutral, and User A has used male pronouns in reference to me in a comment, answer, or chat message. For example, User A might have written something like this on a comment on someone else's post:

But in User B's answer, he said the opposite!

I have two options:

  1. I can let it go, if it doesn't bother me. (Note that use of "he" for a general, gender-neutral third person is still quite common in many contexts, and doesn't imply that the author assumes that the person they are writing about is male. Similarly, use of "she" for a person of unknown gender also does not imply an assumption that the person is female.)
  2. I can politely reply to User A in a comment, indicating my preference for the they/them/their pronouns. Then, after User A has replaced the comment or edited the post, I can delete my own. Note that this does not disclose my own gender identity, only my preference for gender-neutral pronouns:

    I prefer to be referred to with the "they/them/their" pronoun, rather than gender-specific pronouns. Would you mind deleting your comment and replacing it with one that says "But in User B's answer, they said the opposite!"?

I should also make sure to assume good intentions, as per the Be Nice policy. I should not assume that someone who refers to me using a non-preferred pronoun is doing this with any malicious intent.

A flag would not be appropriate in this instance. Just as in "real life", if I am an adult who has a strong preference with respect to the pronouns that people use in reference to me, it is up to me to communicate that to others.

As for a "bystander who is concerned that the gender assumption could affect the quality of the discussion", I'm not sure what specifically you are referring to. (An example of an instance of gender assumption affecting the quality of the discussion might help.) Also, use of he or she in reference to someone whose gender is unknown is more generally indicative of someone's language preferences than of a gender assumption, as per the referenced answers on English.SE. This applies especially in an international community like this one, where members' first languages vary with respect to how gender is used.

  • 4
    In other words: let's all use a bit of that old endowment called common sense. Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 18:49
  • If I were the hypothetical User B, I could imagine saying "By the way, it seems like you may be assuming I'm male; I've actually intentionally avoided giving any information on this site about my gender."
    – Tom Church
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 0:46
  • Why not just use the @username, instead of he/she/it/they/them? Or, we could just all be adults and not focus on small things that really do not impact anything except perhaps a percentage of a persons comfort level. Life has discomfort, some people just have a difficult time dealing with it....... Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 8:07

There is absolutely zero practical way to force a user/commenter/answerer to go to the profile and check for a pronoun preference. It's just not how this system was meant to work.

Given that, I think there are just plain logistical issues preventing this proposal. People I interact with can tell me their preference, and I can do my best to remember it, but despite best efforts, I might not be able to. People come and go with high frequency, and given zero history of a new user, can't be expected to know a preference, and certainly should not be expected to go look it up.

I suppose if people feel really strongly about it, I think they need to approach meta.SE, and ask for a pronoun preference field to appear prominently.

  • "Force a user to go to the profile to check" -- there is no need. When in doubt, all one need do is write 's/he' or 'he or she' or something similarly gender neutral. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 18:41
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    @aparente001 then I'd go to the common usage of "he" as gender-neutral third person, as pointed out by ff524. The use of "he" should not be seen as an endorsement of one's gender role. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 18:58
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    @aparente001 as I told you some hours ago, writing "he or she" is not a good solution. I am quite surprised at your unwillingness to follow requests regarding not using language that reinforces gender-binarism.
    – quid
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 19:13
  • @quid - No need to get tetchy! I'd be happy to consider your request if knew what it is. Consider academia.stackexchange.com/questions/53880/…. I wrote, "You do need to talk to the dean of graduate studies in your department and let him or her know what happened." Do you have a problem with the "him or her" there? If so, please propose a better phrasing. Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 3:03
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    @aparente001 "I'd be happy to consider your request if knew what it is." I gave you information related to this some hours ago. It is not clear what further information is needed and why you ignored the initial recommendation. Further, I expressed surprise and it is unclear why you use "get tetchy" to refer to this. It is genuinely surprising to me that somebody goes over-and-above about (preferred) pronouns and at the same time pays little attention to it. To repeat, you could for example use "singular they"; so, write "and let them know," or avoid use of gendered pronouns by rephrasing.
    – quid
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 8:26

Yes, it should be possible for User B or for a concerned bystander to raise a flag, requesting gentle but helpful moderator action in the situation described.

As in all flags, the moderators would need to evaluate the specifics of the case, including, User A's level of comfort with English, any underlying tension that may exist between the two users, any observed effects on the quality of the particular discussion, and any other specifics the flagger might care to note.

A user wishing to raise such a flag might not feel comfortable confronting User A publicly.

This flagging ability is one way (among others) the site can ensure that everyone is comfortable participating freely in a public place where issues are discussed about the academic world, which has historically been a very gender-circumscribed environment.

  • What is the action you are asking for moderators to take in response to this flag? It's hard to evaluate this answer without knowing what you're asking for. Perhaps you could give some examples.
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 16:16
  • @ff524 - Difficult for me to say, given that flags are not public, and neither is the processing of flags. Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 16:24
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    But you refer to "gentle but helpful moderator action". Surely you have some idea of what such action might entail? (As a moderator, I cannot think of anything useful to do that would be within the scope of moderator duties, so I would have to decline such a flag if it doesn't indicate what action is requested.)
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 16:29
  • @ff524 - Re your first ELU link, the question was 'Is using “he” for a gender-neutral third-person correct?' and the answer you linked to was 'It's still considered acceptable. If you really want to cover your bases, include a definition at the front that reference to one gender imports all other genders, unless the context requires otherwise, and explain that you'll be using "he" for the sake of simplicity.' The problem with the discussions on SE is that it would really bog one down to state the definition at the front of a comment. So, 's/he' would be much, much easier. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 18:38
  • Re your second ELU link, the question was "Reason for the current trend to use «she» as the gender-neutral pronoun?" That's an interesting question, but I didn't quite see how it ties in here. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 18:38
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    As I said here, my point is not to discuss what pronouns should be used (that's been covered quite thoroughly in other meta discussions); rather that when someone else uses "he" or "she" in reference to someone of unknown gender, we should not infer that the author is making a gender assumption. Those links show that people sometimes use "he" or "she" with gender-neutral intent, and so when you read other users' content you should keep that in mind.
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 19:12

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