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.