Why the Default Male is Not Just Annoying, But Also Harmful

Male or female?

Male or female?

‘He’, ‘him’, ‘his’. If you’re like me, you’ve probably noticed that male pronouns far outstrip female ones in everyday use. And if you’re like me, you probably find that really annoying. Everything, from toilet signs to cartoon characters, has the male gender as neutral and unmarked, while the female gender is marked out with ribbons, skirts, or sexy poses. See a puppy running around the neighbourhood, and people would most likely refer to it as a ‘he’. Random stick figure? Also a ‘he’. This is the reality that all of us have grown up with, and not only is it frustrating, it also has some nasty consequences for women.

The default male makes its presence felt very heavily in the media, from films, to TV shows, to games, to books. This means that, unless the plot makes it absolutely necessary for the character to be female, or the writer is making a specific point about gender, the go-to option is usually male. Think about it: have you ever heard a writer asked in an interview, “Was there a reason you chose a man as your protagonist?” Of course not. Everyone knows you don’t need a reason to have a man as your main character, that’s just what’s normal. And what this means is that the characters that are female are not only fewer in number, they also tend to fall into very narrow, gendered roles—mother, hero’s love interest, damsel in distress, or highly-sexualised heroine.

This is bad news for female actors, naturally, who will have fewer opportunities to gain roles, as well as fewer opportunities to display their acting ability. But it’s also bad news for women as a whole. The problem is, if women are only cast in roles where their gender is integral, if they are not portrayed as fully human but simply symbols of ‘the female sex’, and these are the characters that young girls and boys grow up with, what does that say to them about a woman’s status in society? As the Miss Representation campaign tirelessly points out, how can we expect girls to achieve their potential in life when the media fails to represent or inspire them?

And though the media is a huge offender, it is far from the only one. Even in the realms of academia, the default male is alive and well. As part of the Master’s course I’m currently pursuing, I’ve had the opportunity to read countless papers on psychology in the workplace, as academics continue to find ways to improve the employee experience and to help them reach their potential. The only problem is the samples used in their experiments, which are usually (you guessed it) predominantly male. Oh, you do occasionally get samples with say, 70% women, in which case the writers include a caveat about how the sample was mostly female and thus not entirely representative. But when the sample is 96% male? Nope, nothing wrong with that! Completely representative! What’s troubling is that these papers make up the research that continuously pushes the way our workplaces are organised, helping employees become more fulfilled, and more productive. And if the ’employees’ that we’re gaining a deeper understanding of are really just ‘male employees’, then we have a problem.

Perhaps of even more concern is the default male in the medical industry. In a paper by Verdonk et al in 2009, they write, “Medicine is said to be ‘male-biased’ because the largest body of knowledge on health and illness is about men and their health.” Indeed, because the male sex is allowed to represent everyone, research on the male body is assumed to be universally applicable, with women having ‘extra, womanly issues’ like childbirth, period pains and breast cancer, neatly cordoned off into an exclusive section called ‘women’s health’. When the Body Worlds exhibit first opened, an exhibition showcasing plastinates—preserved human bodies— posed in many different ways, many women were incensed at the fact that all the bodies, with the exception of the bodies used in the pregnancy section, were male. The message was clear: men are humans! They can be young or old, they can play sport, they can write, play chess, ride a bike…in short, lead full, complete lives. Women, on the other hand? They make babies.

The male-bias in medicine has serious consequences. Let’s take the heart attack as an example. Now almost everyone can tell you the symptoms of a heart attack. A squeezing, painful feeling in the chest is the surest sign, accompanied by pain in the left arm. Right? Well, as it turns out, that pain in the chest is a classic male heart attack sign, and female heart attacks often have very different symptoms, more comparable to indigestion than chest pain. According to Katherine Kam on WebMD, “many doctors still don’t recognize that women’s symptoms differ, [and] they may mistake them for arthritis, pulled muscles, indigestion, gastrointestinal problems, or even anxiety and hypochondria…many emergency room doctors still look mainly for chest pain.” In such cases, the male-bias can be fatal.

We are more than symbols of our sex. We are more than roles filled in relation to men. We demand full and equal participation and representation in human life, not a sweet little space marked out as ‘not male’.

“Are women human?” Dorothy Sayers asked ironically in 1938. 75 years later, that question is still as poignant as ever.

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25 thoughts on “Why the Default Male is Not Just Annoying, But Also Harmful

  1. I thought this was a very powerful and persuasive piece. Your posts are always thought provoking and I look forward to reading them.

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      • I’m just entering adulthood and I’ve only just begun to notice it; I even slip up myself by assuming “he” sometimes. Definitely a habit I’m trying to get out of, though. Also, I genuinely didn’t know that chest pain was only normally a male symptom of heart attacks! I’m trained in first aid as well. Just shows you how normalised the “default male” really is 😦

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  2. how interesting! I knew that most medicines are tested on predominantly male subjects, but I didn’t know that chest pains were a specifically male symptom for heart attack. Dangerous indeed!

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  3. All research on high cholesterol causing heart problems was carried out on MEN and tests since have shown that high cholesterol is NOT an indicator of heart problems in women. Why, then, are MILLIONS of women on statins?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Go to the zoo and hear ALL the kids’ parents refer to ALL animals as “HE”. Once, sharing a vintage train carriage with a family I actually interrupted the father when he referred to “the MEN” who in Victorian days french-polished the wood and made the upholstery for the carriages. As an expert I was able to point out that those were women’s jobs. He looked like I’d whipped him!

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  5. Wonderful post! Raising two boys I struggle daily with the neutral male. I refuse to perpetuate a patriarchal society simply because all of my children have penises. “or she” is a much heard phrase in our home.

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  6. English is not a very heavily gendered language compared to many others, and even here it is so obvious and ubiquitous. In other languages, where the pronoun ‘they’ is also gendered depending on what kind of group of people it refers to (e.g. French, Spanish), only a group that is 100% female is given the female pronoun (elles, ellas), while both a male and a mixed group is given the male pronoun (ils, ellos), even if the mixed group consists of 1,000 women and 1 man. German is another very heavily gendered language. The default male is even more noticeable and harder to escape in these languages. English-speakers are truly lucky that no feminizing suffix needs to be added to words like doctor, teacher, president or boss to make them refer to women.

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    • I really notice how the male default alters the perceptions of Spanish speakers when they speak English. For example, Spanish speakers tend to unthinkingly translate the Spanish word for child into “boy” or “son”.
      When I point out that we don’t know the gender of the children in question, I see genuine confusion in people’s faces.

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    • Then again, we could just choose to speak those languages and remove the bias (such as in German instead of saying “Ich bin eine Polizistin” (I am a female police officer), we could say “Ich bin ein Polizist” (ein being the masculine or neutral version of “a” or “an”). In Italian, a female lawyer could say “sono un’avvocato” instead of “avvocatessa”.

      As long as you know what job the person has, what difference does it make to them if we take the pronoun off? I know- it means they can’t mark us “female” anymore if that happens.

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  7. Then there’s the obverse – the woman as default when it comes to childrearing and caring for others. There have been at least two cases in Australia where a child died slowly of neglect in households where the mother and father were both present. In both cases the father was held to be less culpable.

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  8. This was an excellent piece. It’s so unfortunate that “he” is used as a sort of gender neutral word, despite the fact that the word itself implies male. I try to use “she” whenever a gender neutral setting presents itself, but I think that a new word needs to be used to promote inclusivity.

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  9. That’s really pissed me off. Few years ago, my mum had a heart attack, discovered weeks later as although she’d felt really unwell, she’d no idea of it being a heart attack at the time. On a lighter note, I’m the only person I know who tells their child to wait for the green person when at the pelican crossing.

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    • I’m so sorry to hear that; it’s high time doctors and scientists acknowledged that ‘women’s health’ is more than our reproductive functions, and stopped focusing on male bodies for everything else.

      Also, I like ‘green person’. I used ‘green human’ once =)

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  11. As a born feminist, I have always fought for the rights of women as human beings first, gender second. I live in a country that is terribly sexist, if I bring up the fact I’m a feminist, it’s met with rolled eyes and a deep annoyed sigh. I’ve lived my life true to myself, when I got married, I kept my surname, my husband saying, “damn right, you’re not my property!” nor did he like the idea of my father ‘giving me away’ (I refused that ritual at the wedding) and yet we hold onto these hidden subjugations and call it tradition. I never wanted children, a choice, not a consequence of illness or birth defect and yet it’s seen as a fault on my part, constantly questioned… but no-one has questioned my husband on not wanting children. I was a police officer for years, I bought my own business and run it, I’m self-taught in astronomy and cosmology, my passion resting comfortably in science, I have a high IQ that constantly pushes my brain to learn more, I’m handy with hand tools and work outdoors and yet how am I treated? As a cook, a cleaner, a shopper of shoes and clothes, a cotton headed mindless vapid and vacant blonde… you get the picture. In no-ones minds eye am I what I actually am. I’m a woman, I’m blonde with blue eyes, that’s what is seen and that’s all there is. I’m my husbands wife, not a separate entity. The human race is missing out on approximately 50% of its usefulness. Little wonder we’re so backward. So much more to say yet the point has been made. I’m in my mid forties, will I see a change before I’m an old woman? I don’t think so.

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