Gender-Neutral Responses

As Mother’s Day approaches, here is some good advice: author responses to referee comments should be devoid of gender-specific pronouns. While the majority of the community is male (the 2013 AGU annual report lists the society membership as two-thirds male), there are a lot of females in our field. Please do not assume that the reviewer of your paper was a man. Please refer to this person as “the referee” or “the reviewer” instead of assigning a gender.


            I often see this sentence, or something very similar, in the author responses: “The authors thank the referee for his or her useful comments.” I have never big a big fan of the “his or her” cover-the-bases double specification that we often use in English. The substitutes of he/she or (s)he are no better, in my opinion. I find these to be awkward and I wish that there was a good gender-neutral replacement. Doing an internet search on “gender-neutral pronouns” gets you a long list of pages trying to explain the options out there. Apparently, many alternatives have been invented but, from what I can tell, nothing has caught on in popularity.

One option I have seen in books is to switch gender designations every paragraph or chapter. This doesn’t really work in an author response, because the about the only place a gender-specific pronoun is used is in the first and last paragraphs (at most). Switching gender usage from sentence to sentence is very confusing, in my opinion. The document just isn’t long enough for this technique to work properly.

Another option is to use the grammatically incorrect plural pronoun, “The authors thank the referee for their useful comments.” The Grammar Enforcer inside of me winces in pain but at least it is gender neutral. It seems to be the most popular solution as it mirrors how many of us speak.

Another alternative is to rewrite the sentence to avoid the need for a pronoun. That is, replace “his or her” with another descriptor, like “providing,” “making,” or “these.” Like this, “The authors thank the referee for providing useful comments.” I like this solution the best but it requires extra time and effort to reword the sentence in a way that makes sense.

In any case, please stop using just he/him/his in author responses to reviewer comments. Because AGU keeps the identity of the referee hidden to the authors, the gender of this person is unknown. Using the male pronouns is outdated and sexist. Diction matters.


10 thoughts on “Gender-Neutral Responses

  1. Not everyone agrees that ‘their’ (or ‘they’) is grammatically incorrect as a singular. Shakespeare used it in the singular case and quite a lot of style-guides now recommend it as a sign of the evolution of language

  2. Nice post, Mike. I agree with your suggestion of striving not to use a gender-based pronoun at all. Not only are some professionals in our field women, but a small few simply do not identify with a gender at all, which is an important perspective to be sensitive to.

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