This week, tech developers introduced Q, the world’s first “genderless” virtual assistant. Whereas Siri, Alexa and most other electronic helpers speak in conspicuously feminine tones, Q has been engineered to create a gender-neutral effect. As a result, users can benefit from all the useful information and guidance available to us today, without reinforcing the old-fashioned idea that the role of eager helpmate is necessarily played by a woman.
But degendering is not just good for robots. It’s time we humans get serious about it too.
There are signs we’re moving in that direction already. Some people—and even companies—are pushing back against everyday practices that automatically place us into binary gender categories. Just this week, for example United Airlines announced that it would create a new booking option for people who do not identify as Mr. or Ms.; they can now choose the gender-neutral honorific Mx.
Among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, plus (LGBTQ+) advocates and other progressives, using people’s preferred or “affirming” pronouns—including the gender-neutral singular they—is already an important and widespread way to show respect and promote inclusion. Across college campuses and in a growing number of professional workplaces, it is now common to begin meetings by having people introduce themselves and state their pronouns. Pronoun preferences are showing up on e-mail signatures too.
For several months, we have been traveling across the country to interview feminist and LGBTQ+ activists, and we have found that they generally support the idea of announcing pronouns on email signatures and in introductions. They say these practices create spaces that are welcoming of transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Reverend Neil Cazares-Thomas, pastor of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas—the world’s largest liberal Christian church with a primary outreach to LGBTQ+ people—told us that including pronouns on an e-mail signature serves as “code for transgender folks ... that they are going to be welcome in this space.”
These new practices challenge assumptions that gender identity is always self-evident and that everyone identifies as either man or woman. But they leave intact the presumption that gender identity is relevant in all social interactions. Indeed, having to constantly announce one’s pronouns or choose an honorific may make gender seem even more important than it already is.
That’s a problem, because studies show that highlighting gender often disadvantages women. For instance, when identical résumés are submitted for a position, with the only difference being gendered first names of applicants, “Brian” is twice as likely as “Karen” to get the offer. In contrast, when symphony orchestras adopted “blind” auditions that used a screen to conceal the candidate’s identity from the jury, the probability of women being advanced and hired increased dramatically.
Announcing pronouns or having to choose an honorific among gendered options may also worsen gender inequality by making women more aware of their own gender identity. One study found that Asian-American women college students performed worse on a math test when asked to identify their gender (stereotypically associated with low performance in math) before taking the exam. Studies like this lead us to wonder whether constantly having to declare that your gender pronouns are she/her/hers or that your honorific is Ms. could lead people who use these pronouns to underperform on tasks typically associated with masculinity, or to opt out of these tasks altogether.
Given how pervasively women are subordinated by gender stereotypes, it is not surprising that many seek gender-anonymity in online chat rooms and in other virtual spaces. Not only do these spaces allow us to escape judgments based on gender, but they free us from the obligation to be gendered in the first place. Sometimes a person just wants to be a doctor or a firefighter, not a woman doctor or a female firefighter.
What if there were a way to promote gender inclusion—as announcing pronouns and adding Mx. as an option to airline reservations seek to do—without running the risk of worsening gender inequality? We think there is: using they/them for everyone, regardless of gender identity. We could similarly make Mx. the salutation for everyone or simply do away with salutations altogether.
The universal singular they is inclusive of people who identify as male, female or nonbinary (e.g., “Drew is in my class; they are a great student”). It avoids the problem of misgendering by not using pronouns to gender people in the first place. Plus, it reduces the salience of gender in everyday interactions, which is likely to be a good thing for women (regardless of whether or not their assigned sex at birth was female).
To be sure, for people who have experienced the pain of being denied gender recognition in the past, announcing pronouns can lead to meaningful moments of affirmation. But this may come at a hidden cost to others. Some people feel that announcing gender, writes historian Jen Manion, of Amherst College, “requires them to make a declaration, whether they are ready, or want to.”
And, we argue, announcing pronouns may enable gender bias and discrimination. Likewise, while the use of honorifics is commonly viewed as a sign of respect, as long as the two most used options are gender-specific, use of honorifics emphasizes gender and potentially perpetuates bias and discrimination—problems we cannot afford to disregard.
When we propose to activists the idea of replacing gendered pronouns with the universal singular they, most dismiss such broad-based language reform as pie-in-the-sky thinking. Yet, who would have thought that use of the honorific Ms., coined in the 1970s as an alternative to Miss or Mrs.,would have caught on as it has? Unlike the campaign for Ms., everyone uses the word they already. In fact, lots of people use the singular they when they don’t know a person’s gender identity, as in “That driver just cut me off; they’re such a jerk!”
Don’t get us wrong: we’re all for gender inclusivity. A world in which users can choose between a masculine and a feminine sounding Siri is a real improvement over one in which all virtual assistants are only woman-like. But let’s not stop there. With advances like Q, we have the chance to move beyond the practice of gratuitous gendering. And that’s an opportunity we need to embrace in other aspects of life as well.