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Context

I am a woman and I sometimes post things online, on Stack Exchange for instance. Usually, my posts are very neutral and do not provide any hint of my gender.

It seems that most people assume that I am a man since they refer to me by writing "he". I don't take it personally and I don't feel offended at all. I'm glad enough people answer my questions!

That being said, I'd like to politely inform people who mistake me for a man that I am actually a woman. I don't want it to sound aggressive because I don't really mind and it doesn't change anything to the answer, nonetheless I think they ought to know in order, maybe, to realize that there are also women here.


Question

How do I let online people know I'm a woman when they're assuming I'm male, without being awkward? I'm not a native English speaker so I'm not even sure how to phrase it in a natural way (and to that extent, maybe I should have posted that question in the English Language and Usage SE site).


Additional details

Example

It is true that as a developer, I sometimes post on allegedly more masculine websites. Yet the last example I have is a question I wrote about my bathroom door that could not be closed properly (on Lifehacks site). Someone commented an answer that suggested a solution implying me drilling holes:

perhaps he lives in rented accommodation and can't modify?

Completely harmless, but I'm still considering informing nicely the user of their mistake.

How about changing my user profile?

Some people pointed out that I could fill my profile or indicate my gender through my avatar or username. Indeed that way people would be less inclined to assume I’m a man. Nonetheless, I feel that it would just bypass the problem: I’m bothered by the fact that there are approximately half of human beings who are female and that I still should state my gender online in order not to be mistaken for a man. Moreover, I prefer gender neutral answers whenever the gender is not relevant, and the best way to get them is to have a neutral profile.

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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta, not least of which is causing extended discussion in comments... like above. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – Arwen Undómiel Feb 21 '18 at 12:52
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    Please don't use the comments here to justify your default to male pronouns or explain why it is the status quo. It's beside the point and reads like an attempt to undermine/invalidate the OP's question. We understand why it happens. If you have an answer, write an answer. – Catija Feb 21 '18 at 15:43
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    perhaps you should tell us the issue with simply correcting people in the first place. would give us a better idea of a good answer. – tuskiomi Mar 19 '18 at 13:51

11 Answers 11

100

That being said, I'd like to politely inform people who mistake me for a man that I am actually a woman. I don't want it to sound aggressive because I don't really mind and it doesn't change anything to the answer, nonetheless I think they ought to know in order, maybe, to realize that there are also women here.

People can never seem to figure out my gender. Part of that is perhaps slightly intentional - I'll often use a female avatar (and, on this site, even a female username) and try to keep it ambiguous.. But when it's relevant, I will sometimes state my gender (presenting as male).

I'm assuming that you're getting comments like this (this example would be on an answer to a question you've asked):

John Doe: But this doesn't seem to fit into the sentence that the OP provided. Why do you say that this will help him?

So, in my experience, the best way to correct them would be something like this:

Trabool: @JohnDoe - Actually, it's "her". ;)

This way, you correct their use of pronouns and make it known that you're female. It's not too aggressive - just a one-line, simple correction. The emoticon, while optional, lightens the message, implying that you're not angry about it or anything - it's a way of saying "no harm done" in advance.

In my experience, I've never really had this type of interaction go badly (although it will spark a "oh, so why do you use that avatar?" question often, that's not applicable to your situation). The other person will often just go "Oh, okay! Sorry!" and then you can flag the comments as no longer needed ;)

67

In English, and in most cultures that use English as a first language, the masculine gender has historically been the default when speaking about an unidentified person. For example, written instructions intended to be received and used by any person of any gender often refer to the user as "he". Cultural changes mean this may be on the decline in formal use; although informal terms like "guys" which were traditionally masculine seem to be increasingly used for both genders, so who knows what will be the norm in the future. Your experience would seem to indicate that defaulting to masculine IS still the norm, and while that is the case you can only ensure you are addressed in the correct gender via one of two means:

1. Identify your gender from the outset

If you don't want to have to correct people you could choose to be less gender-neutral in the way you present yourself online. Your profile could display your gender, or even a photograph. I completely appreciate why individuals may not wish to do this for privacy reasons, but it is an option that cannot be ignored if your ultimate goal is for people to recognise your gender and address you correctly.

2. Correct people when they address you incorrectly.

If you desire to present your profile/bio/whatever in a gender-neutral way then you must expect that people will address you incorrectly at least some of the time. And I say "incorrectly" - but given the background information I covered above, many would argue that they are not incorrect, just using the "default" gender because you did not specify which you are.

The "polite" way to notify someone of your gender is simply to avoid any confrontational language, but really there is no way to be less than direct.

If somebody has responded to a Stack Exchange question for example, you could perhaps say:

Actually I am female, but yes I agree with your response.

This two-part response acknowledges all they said that was correct, and just corrects them on your gender.

Without any other acknowledgement of what they perhaps said in response to you may leave your correction seeming a little stark and the recipient may assume you are annoyed. They may still assume that! But saying something positive will at least soften the blow.

Being less direct (ie more verbose) about the correction may seem like you are softening the blow but could actually come across like it is more of a "big deal".

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    Can you cite sources for your assertion that instructions default to male pronouns? I don't tend to find this to be the case... most instructions are written in direct address (2nd person) or are written without pronouns at all. "When leaving a message, be sure to include full contact information so that you may be reached easily." – Catija Feb 21 '18 at 15:37
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – HDE 226868 Feb 22 '18 at 1:20
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This isn’t a full answer, but I’d like to point out a few nuances that I feel the other answers miss, that come from my own experiences as a woman on the internet.

I personally don’t like the idea of having to change my presentation (username/avatar) in order to be recognised as a woman. To me it would make me feel even more of an ‘other’ and reinforces the idea that anything generic = male, and that there’s nothing to be done about that. It also makes it my responsibility to premediate someone else’s presumption, which does not really get at the heart of the issue. I see from your edit that you wish to avoid that as well, so we’ll leave that option out.

Then, although it’s important to be polite, you definitely don’t need to apologise. It’s not your fault. Moreover, women stereotypically have a hard time being assertive, and apologising unnecessarily is something I like to avoid for this reason.

I would also avoid smileys, because just as there are some people who believe that expressing your gender is attention-seeking behaviour (as was expressed in another answer, which is now deleted) there are some people who think it’s a good idea to start flirting with you now that they have realised you are a woman. (This comes from my own experience, and many similar stories I’ve heard.) Since a winky face is often considered flirtatious, I’d just avoid it.

With all that in mind, I think it is polite enough to simply correct them, and avoid it coming across as abrupt by adding some other statement recognising their answer in some way. I think the second part of Astralbee’s answer is a good example of this.

20

If you're asking a question and someone answers to you, the best way to do that would be to start the comment with

Thank you for the answer [...]

(and I'm female btw)

End your message with the mention, meaning you don't care about it enough for it to be in the body of your message, feeling accentuated by the parentheses. That way, you make your reader know that you are woman, without making them feel awkward about making a mistake.

On that note, and I'm talking from experience here, but I've never felt awkward making such mistakes on the internet, especially nowadays with the invention of 50 new genders each day (Apache combat helicopter anyone?). I don't feel that it's possible to get things right in the first time when all you have to base your judgement on is a nickname. Take note that I'm speaking a heavily gendered language (french) and am used to assume the gender of something/someone, so that may explain that lack of awkwardness, and may not apply in other cultures.

Also, depending on the community you're browsing, the male/female ratio will be more or less unbalanced. On a tech site like SO, or video games communities, it'll tend to be really heavily male-dominated, so you have a better chance of guessing right by chosing male. That would be the other way around in some other kind of stereotypical communities.

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    Err. "Follow up message"? The OP's examples are all in terms of StackExchange - where there aren't "follow up messages". – Martin Bonner Feb 21 '18 at 15:24
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    And here is the example of how to refer to persons in SE: OP is perfectly acceptable and gender-free. – RedSonja Feb 22 '18 at 14:10
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    @MartinBonner So what would you call the comment you make in response to this one? – Timbo Feb 22 '18 at 19:27
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    @Timbo : "A comment" (not a follow up message) – Martin Bonner Feb 22 '18 at 19:41
  • @MartinBonner: Commenting on answers when they're in need of an edit is well established. Getting the gender of the OP wrong in an answer is worthy of a comment. But yes, I agree you shouldn't write a comment where the main point is a generic "thank you" and the gender correction is secondary. You could do it the other way around, though, especially if there's anything more specific / interesting to say about how the answer helped you (e.g. "thanks, now my function runs 5x as fast") after pointing out the correction. Or just keep the comment shorter. – Peter Cordes Feb 25 '18 at 4:41
15

Repeating other answers here a bit, but ...

It seems like you have 5 choices:

  1. Use a user name or icon that indicates you are a woman. Some men use pictures of woman as their icon, but few use a female name, and if they do, they're probably playing games anyway.

  2. Specify that you are female in your profile. Depending what site we're talking about, there may or may not be profiles or a way to say your sex. In any case, most of the time users won't look at your profile before posting.

  3. Mention in your post that you are a woman. If this is relevant to your question or comment, like if you are taking about dating or medical issues or role of women in society or some such, it can be quite natural to say, "I am a woman and ..." or "As a woman, how do I ..." If it's not particularly relevant, if you're asking about particle physics or ancient history or whatever, and it just annoys you to have responses refer to you as "he", you could always end with a parenthetical, "(I'm a woman, by the way, please refer to me as "she")". But this does seem awkward and irrelevant.

  4. The first time someone refers to you as "he", include in your response a comment like, "(I'm a 'she', by the way)". I'd be surprised if anyone found this rude or distracting.

  5. Do nothing. Let them refer to you as "he". If you're not looking for a date, who cares?

I've had a few times that I've posted on a site that was predominantly frequented by women -- a site on parenting comes to mind -- and I've said in my post, "As a man ..." or some such just to avoid any confusion.

I've had a few times that someone has referred to me as "she" in a reply to a post of mine. (Did something I say sound feminine? Oh no, now I must struggle with affirming my masculinity! ...) I don't think it's ever been particularly relevant. Sometimes I just ignore it, sometimes I say, "(I'm a 'he' by the way)" or some such. The only time I recall making a point of it was when someone was making all sorts of assumptions about my demographic background, "You must be a young person with no experience in life to think that way" when really I'm 59, made a comment about how I must have a low IQ when actually I was in Mensa, and referred to me as "she" when I'm a man. So I made a little fun of all his wrong guesses.

12

I'd like to talk less about the polite way of correcting, and more about the psychology of why this happens, and how important correcting them is to you in the first place.

If I show you half of a picture, the human brain is incredibly adept at telling you what the rest of the picture more or less should look like. In cases where that's not necessarily accurate because it is either intentionally misleading or your concept was flawed from the beginning, adjustments to the original will be harder to accept for some people more so than others.

I have a very visual memory, and a memory that is very much tied to numbers. If you rattle off a 10 digit number, I'll likely remember it tomorrow unless my brain was in "this information isn't important" mode. Don't ask me to remember your name 30 seconds after we meet though.

The reason this is important to your question is because my brain is constantly creating a mental image of people I talk to online. In the absence of actual information, it will just start to make it up. Where there's any ambiguity, I will pick option a or b and continue to paint a picture with the information I have.

There's some really good reading to refresh, or introduce you to the duck vs rabbit phenomenon here: http://www.spring.org.uk/2012/01/duckrabbit-illusion-provides-a-simple-test-of-creativity.php.

The reason I think that's important is because it is easier for some people to "change" their initial notion, or image 'auto-complete' if you will than it is for others. That correlates more to how their brain works than how socially aware they are.

So the specific advice is have is to simply continue to give them more information to correct and adapt their mental image.

perhaps he lives in rented accommodation and can't modify?

Most of the answers here suggest a really direct approach:

perhaps he lives in rented accommodation and can't modify?

Actually it's 'she', and yes, my accommodation is rented.

Even though it seems a little more awkward, you could try this instead.

perhaps he lives in rented accommodation and can't modify?

She does in fact live in rented accommodation, and further, I was hoping to not have to spend extra money on painting when I move in December

The latter may not always work, but depending on how set someone's mental image is, the former may not either. I would absolutely recommend the more direct approach if you suspect the incorrect assumption was sexist, but in cases where you simply didn't provide the information and they chose what their brain thought was the most likely option, I'd say go with the second where it works.

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    I like you answer except for the implication that brains just choosing the most likely option is mutually exclusive with sexism. Sexism can be, and often is, caused by an entirely subconscious reaction. – Rick Feb 21 '18 at 15:52
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    @Azor-Ahai I disagree with you both. It is naturally sympathic and obvious to believe until proven otherwise that someone else is just like you. This is a compliment. So in at least half the cases it is textbook sympathy, by the very definition of the word sympathy. – Stian Yttervik Feb 22 '18 at 4:26
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    Interestingly, this implicit method may fail (in the sense that there will be no change in pronoun) exactly for users who are consciously using "he" as a "generic masculine" form (i.e. always using "he" because they do not (want to) distinguish between male and female users), and who may thus assume that the OP is, likewise, using a "generic feminine" form. – O. R. Mapper Feb 22 '18 at 10:44
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    @StianYttervik That doesn't make sense. By your assertion, all women would assume that everyone on SO is female... but, as a woman, I can assure you that I'm more likely to guess someone on SO is male... so... – Catija Feb 22 '18 at 18:32
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    @Catija Anecdotal evidence is not going to change my mind nor should it influence yours. The assertion I am refuting is that the use of male pronouns for unknowns is sexism. – Stian Yttervik Feb 22 '18 at 23:55
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If your intention is to inform people they made a mistake, better don't, unless it's relevant. Some people are literally trained to make this mistake: e.g. consider Spanish, where 89% feminine nouns and feminine 98% given names end with "a", no wonder "Trabool" sounds like a masculine name to them. Letting it go is really as polite as it gets, at the expense of you having to tolerate the wrong pronouns.

The next level would be to give people more clues, so that they will be less likely to make it. Of course, it doesn't have to be a full collection of sexist stereotypes crammed into your nickname+avatar (btw., don't bother specifying your gender in the profile, nobody will look there). Something as discreet as a nickname ending in "a" or "e" would work for most languages and cultures.

Of course, if the gender is relevant to the question you're asking, state it explicitly.

If your intention is to make a statement about people abusing masculine pronouns, there's no other way than keeping correcting people who assume you're a guy. Regular tips for non-confrontational discussion apply:

  • don't be rude
  • don't assume bad intentions
  • don't suggest people should have known which pronoun to pick
  • don't ask rhetorical or semi-rhetorical questions, e.g. "what makes you think I'm a guy?"
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    My username ends with an A and I still have many, many people assume that I'm male... just to put that out there... the reality is, many people don't actually look at your username and think critically about it. – Catija Feb 21 '18 at 17:19
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    @Catija Really? I was actually considering writing "Look at Catija, I bet she doesn't have this issue that much, if at all". Some people must be really ignoring the username completely then. – Dmitry Grigoryev Feb 21 '18 at 17:23
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    I also come from a culture where names ending in 'a' tend to be female. But my Italian mate Andrea would laugh at that, as would my German colleague Sascha. And my real name does not end in 'a' either. Hmm. – RedSonja Feb 22 '18 at 14:13
  • So what gender is a hypothetical Andrea then? Even if you know the stress is on the first syllable, the probable answer varies with nationality. I think you're over-extrapolating from a few well-known languages – Chris H Feb 22 '18 at 14:24
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    @RedSonja I also happen to have friends named Andrea and Angelo, and they both have been addressed as ladies by non-Italians who never saw them in person. And Sascha is not exclusively male. Anyway, I'm not arguing there are no exceptions, just trying to explain where the confusion is coming from. – Dmitry Grigoryev Feb 22 '18 at 15:52
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Two tricks that can be employed in some cases:

  1. If the nature of your question permits, you could work in a mention of something that someone said to or about you and have the feminine pronoun in it. Some people will still miss it, but most will consciously or subconsciously absorb the implication.

  2. If the masculine pronoun appears in an answer (not a comment) you can edit it yourself. Some people will see that it has been edited and look to see the changes. Others will just see the corrected pronoun and consciously or subconsciously absorb the implication.

No matter what you do (even if your user ID is “Diana” and your photo quite feminine), there will always be a percentage that miss it.

  • This is the answer I was looking for. Just find some way to use feminine pronouns in your post and people will subconsciously shift their brains to "they're a girl" mode. Works on me, at least. – Feathercrown Feb 23 '18 at 7:46
2

Use a feminine nickname

It might sound like a cop-out, but actually one of the easiest ways to indicate to people online that you are female is to use a feminine nickname.

Apologies if I am showing my ignorance/prejudice, but I would assume someone with nickname Trabool is a man. I'm not saying I'm right in doing that, but I think the majority of people online would react the same.

On the flipside, I knew someone in another online community who did have a rather feminine nickname but was male, and often was referred to with feminine pronouns by other community members who didn't know him!

If your goal is to show that you are female whilst avoiding embarrassment, this may be the easiest and most effective way to reach your goal.

0

If you even need to correct people, then maybe those people have bigger problems? Personally, I tend to use gender neutral pronouns unless the person in question has a very obviously male or female name, or unless they specifically disclose their gender.

Having said that, I think it would be perfectly ok to just add a footnote to the conversation, should you deem it necessary:

... by the way, I am a woman.

In many cases, mentioning it would only be for your personal satisfaction, as I suspect a lot of perpetrators probably wouldn't really care one way or the other.

-1

Feminine nickname

When someone sees "Jane.Adams" or "Blossom-Girl" it might give a clue to us that this is probably a woman we're chatting with. This method has some drawbacks - you have to change the nickname to some other; users might not notice the nickname. And this whole approach appears a little offending to me personally because it kinda suggests that guys should have "manly" nicknames, and girls should not, which is a stereotype.

Direct response

Sorry, I'm female, by the way :)

or even

Actually, I'm a girl, sorry if I made you think otherwise. So, about this thing....

As I see it, those responses do not show other people that you're offended by their mistake. Even though you personally don't have to apologize for their misinterpretation, I believe such phrasing can soften up the edges and help you both focus on the topic. And that's it.

Note

In some languages (e.g. Russian) masculine form is a default one. So if russian person describes some generic person like a doctor or a lawyer, they would use "he" all the time. This is not directly applicable to the question here, but I think it is useful information still. Besides, if you're posting on some forum about "guns, hunting and fishing", please understand that 75% or more of the residents there are probably male, hence the default expectation that you're a man too :). In that case I suggest using any of the two phrases above.

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    "When someone sees "Jane.Adams" or "Blossom-Girl" it might give a clue to us that this is probably a woman we're chatting with." You'd be surprised. – Mast Feb 21 '18 at 14:26
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    I'd avoid "sorry I'm female". I don't think it's a condition you should apologise for. – Dawood ibn Kareem Feb 21 '18 at 19:50
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    @dawoodibnkareem It is her fault for not providing the information she's expecting people to know. – user2921 Feb 22 '18 at 2:58
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    @Physics-Compute Nonsense. Most users of any online community understand that if someone hasn't indicated their gender, there's a possibility that that person is female. – Dawood ibn Kareem Feb 22 '18 at 3:07
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    @DawoodibnKareem Expecting someone to know information you are deliberately withholding is different from not expecting them to know while deliberately withholding. One is illogically accusatory, while the other is not accusatory. – user2921 Feb 22 '18 at 3:31

protected by Catija Feb 21 '18 at 17:53

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