Should I simply ignore it if authors assume that I'm male in their response to my review of their article?

Rebecca J. Stones 11/02/2018. 22 answers, 33.249 views

I received a response about a manuscript I reviewed earlier, and the authors write about the reviewer (i.e., me) and his concerns. As a woman, I'm not so keen on this.

Obviously this isn't intentionally insulting or anything like that---it's a minor blip. Nevertheless, it's a bit irksome, and the feminist in me is thinking that's not right; it's a microaggression (one of the everyday reminders that you don't belong here).

I could simply ignore it, but...

Question: Should I simply ignore it if authors assume that I'm male in their response to my review of their article?

There's no issues inside the manuscript: they thank the reviewers without using pronouns.

I'm particularly interested in if an editor would typically just groan and consider me a troublemaker for saying anything. And probably not pass the message on to the authors anyway.

Dmitry Savostyanov 11/02/2018.

As a reviewer, you are supposed to comment on academic value and scientific correctness of the manuscript.

As a woman, you feel unhappy about authors not guessing a correct pronoun for you and not using an appropriate gender-neutral pronoun.

It seems that the issue has nothing to do with the manuscript and hence you are not reacting with your reviewer hat on. You are considering your response based on your role as woman/feminist/activist — but not as a reviewer. You are not reviewing the paper, you are reviewing author's communicative behaviour.

As long as you make it clear that you are not commenting as as reviewer of a manuscript, I think you can make this remark to the editor.

user2768 11/06/2018.

I've found that some non-native English speakers use he for they, because that's how they'd do it in their mother tongue. Perhaps mention in your response (alongside any other language/style/etc.) issues:

Use they, rather than he, when the person's gender is unknown.

From chat:

Most native English speakers over a certain age were taught that the use of "they" to refer to a single person is incorrect (I continue to consider it incorrect).

Indeed, Strunk & White (The Elements of Style) write, "The use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language." They go on to add, "Currently, however, many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive."

But, "Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent – the word the pronoun refers to – is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed...that’s nothing new." The OED "traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf."

See Wikipedia for a summary of guidance offered by style guides.

user100093 11/02/2018.

I don't know what an editor would think of it, but I think it's fine to mention your experience of receiving the review with the incorrect pronoun, as long as (like other answers have said) you allow for the possibility that it was a translation error etc. e.g.

PS. I appreciate this is a relatively minor issue, but as a female reviewer it felt awkward to be referred to as 'he' by the authors.

It may make more sense to do this if there is some action you would like the editor to take, e.g.

Would you consider issuing guidelines to authors and reviewers that they should not presume the gender of their colleagues?

I don't agree that as a reviewer/any other professional role you should have to ignore the discouraging effect that adds up from these interactions.

user168715 11/04/2018.

Just drop it.

There are places where it's entirely reasonable for a scholar to start a discussion with a colleague about politically-charged, potentially-inflammatory topics such as microagressions, the appropriateness of using "he" as a genderless pronoun, unintended negative consequence of assuming a random member of a (presumably) male-dominated field is male, etc etc.

Reviewer-author communications are an especially poor choice of such a place.

• Peer reviews are intended to be objective, impartial, and impersonal, and political activism is decidedly off-topic in this context;
• The review process is already often stressful and tense, and criticism of the author's communication style is more-likely-than-usual to be interpreted as confrontational rather educational.

EDIT: to answer your specific question: as an associate editor, I would do nothing: I would not delete a sufficiently civil correction in the “comments to authors,” nor would I relay anything to the authors if you put it in “private comments to the editor.” I would base all my decisions purely on the technical content of the review.

Allure 11/02/2018.

I think you should let this one go.

If you have to use pronouns in situations where you don't know the author's gender, there's always a chance you get it wrong. For example take most questions here on Academia.SE. If you have to refer to the question-asker in a situation where the gender is unknown, do you use 'he' or 'she'? It's either choose one and risk the possibility of getting it wrong, or write 'he or she' everywhere and end up with a very cumbersome answer (not to mention there's still a chance you get it wrong, since it's possible the question-asker identifies as transgender and prefers 'they').

That said, you could write something like this:

The authors have addressed all the issues, and I recommend this paper for publication.

PS: I'm female.

Writing something short like this is unlikely to make the editor groan, and he or she (or they) will probably pass your comment on to the authors. Editors don't usually censor reviewers - that only happens if there's something really inappropriate in the review, and this certainly isn't something inappropriate.

Dan Fox 11/05/2018.

If the use of the masculine pronoun to refer to a reviewer of unknown gender is problematic, this is so independently of the gender of the particular reviewer. A formulation like the following allows the reviewer to indicate this without revealing the reviewer's gender. In the reply to the authors the reviewer could write something like the following: Although the following comment is not relevant to my evaluation of the technical merit of the manuscript, the authors are advised that writing "his concerns" when referring to the concerns of an unknown reviewer presupposes that the reviewer is male, and that such an unfounded assumption could be bothersome to some reviewers.

einpoklum 11/12/2018.

Should I simply ignore authors assuming I'm male in their response to my review of their article?

I wouldn't. But - I'd try to say something that sounds dispassionate and not very accusative. Paraphrasing @Allure's suggestion, and assuming the authors get a copy of your recommendation, I'd write something like:

The authors have addressed all the issues; the paper is therefore recommended for publication.

PS: In their response to the review, the authors assumed the reviewer was male (e.g. in using references such as "his concerns"). The authors are reminded that is not necessarily the case.

darij grinberg 11/03/2018.

This has so far been mostly pointed out in the comments, but since comments get culled on topics like this, let me re-state it as an answer:

You don't know whether the authors are actually assuming your gender, or merely using a grammatical rule that you dislike, or aren't even fully conscious of their grammar (e.g., being non-native speakers).

Any response should take this into account: you don't want to assume what the authors are doing either. Thus, as several people on this thread have suggested (often for other reasons), it makes sense to be non-confrontative and not centralize the topic in your response.

The concept of a microaggression, too, does not have the empirical footing that it ought to have before I would start lobbing it as an accusation; google for "microaggression evidence" (e.g., Scott O. Lilienfeld, Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence). It isn't hard to draw some lines and define some things to be microaggressions, but the lines will depend heavily on who is drawing them, all while the actual damage done by crossing these lines is far from established. At the very least, the field isn't yet at the point where it can be applied with a resemblance of surety. Correspondingly, whatever you suggest should be a suggestion, not a correction.

Andrei 11/07/2018.

I think your question can be rephrased like this:

Should you do what you think it's right, or should you not, because it is likely to bite you back?

From my experience, nobody likes to be contradicted. Regardless of the context, or even the possible benefits that changing their minds can bring to them, people simply hate it to be contradicted. No matter whom (the journal, the authors, etc) you raise the issue, you'll be perceived as a pain in the ass, smaller or bigger, depending on how diplomatic you are.

What you need to do is to assess 2 things: what you lose and what you gain if you contradict someone. When assessing losses don't forget to include things like the spent effort (like posting this question here) and the virtual losses of debates which you may not have since the current loss will exclude you. When assessing gains don't forget to assess things like the societal impact.

In short: pick your battles. Only you can answer which are worth fighting for.

Edit: People keep misinterpreting my answer, which indicates that it is not clear enough. This is an attempt to clarify it.

Any answer that she should reply about the misuse of the pronoun or that she should let it go, is, in my opinion irresponsible. None of these 2 decisions can be reached simply by using the information provided in the answer. Such a decision should depend on many things, some of which are very personal details about the Original Poster (OP) (some examples are: is she currently involved in a lot of projects, is she currently over stressed, what is her relationship with the journal, does she care about it, can this affect her career, to what extent etc). Due to the nature of such details, I do not expect the OP to clarify the question, but to be helpful, I indicated a basic possible framework, which can help her reach a conclusion of her own.

Most people who already answered here believe she needs a push towards a decision, or a public poll on the matter. Her life is not a democracy, and her personal circumstances are not the same as other people circumstances. It is fair to say what one would do in her position, it is not fair to tell her what to do, from a selfish interest to promote the interests of the answering person, disregarding the possible detrimental effects on the OP and her agenda.

To exemplify, in her position, I would let it go, because I do not think that using the male pronoun as a neutral gender pronoun means anything more than that. I do not think it is non-inclusive, but a mere artifact of how English evolved over thousands of years. Even if it might have had non-inclusive origins (a fact that I do not know of) thousands of years ago, it does not have a non-inclusive meaning now. Still, I personally use they when the gender is not clear, because I know it might bother other people, and whether they are right or wrong, I still don't want to annoy them or disrupt the flow of whatever we were doing.

Even if in OP's position, I would let it go, I do not think that this is the best decision for her to take, because the optimal solution depends on her circumstances, of which I am not, and I cannot be aware of. Simply said, I am not her, and I encourage you, the OP, to carefully look inwards for an answer.

I hope that with my edit, which in my opinion, is just rephrasing and exemplifying my original answer, the answer is more clear now.

Dohn Joe 11/05/2018.

Apply Hanlon's razor with great liberty. It is most probably thoughtlessness in this case.

Peer-review is supposed to be a neutral and objective process, which involves the authors not communicating directly with the reviewers. Thus, the authors most probably had no idea you are a woman.

TheJack 11/02/2018.

Firstly, I would check whether the journal has a policy or style guidelines to the effect of using gender-neutral pronouns, and whether the authors are native/non-native speakers of English. If, as you say, you have met one of the authors, you probably can make a strong guess at their nativity.

Case 1: Non-native speaker

Many (I would hazard a guess and say most) non-native speakers, myself included, have been taught never to use "they" in singular. In fact, we received corporal punishments at times if we did that. I learnt about this usage only after I relocated, and since then I've had to consciously convince myself to use it. Secondly, some of the non-English languages I speak, don't have or usually use gender-neutral pronouns. Although that is changing, they are far behind on the curve than English is. Hence, in the case of non-native speakers, I would probably give them a large benefit of doubt.

In this case, I suggest that you write to the editor separately. If they don't have a policy, request that they make one. If they do, explain your experience without naming names and request them to enforce it better.

Case 2: Native speaker

This is would be a more egregious case since we can assume that the person at least knows of this usage, and there's not much room for doubt. In this case, I would go with something like what @user100093 suggests in his answer, except I would modify the 'P. S.' section to say - "This is a relatively minor issue, but I would appreciate it if the authors don't assume the gender of the reviewers in their responses or communications". That way you have made your point without revealing your own gender, thus preserving anonymity.

As to whether the editor would actually pass on the message to the authors - who knows. But I don't believe that you will be immediately branded a troublemaker simply for making this point.

Federico Poloni 11/06/2018.

I'd like to write more or less what Dmitry Savostyanov wrote in his answer

It seems that the issue has nothing to do with the manuscript and hence you are not reacting with your reviewer hat on. You are considering your response based on your role as woman/feminist/activist — but not as a reviewer. You are not reviewing the paper, you are reviewing author's communicative behaviour.

but without the last part where he suggests that

As long as you make it clear that you are not commenting as as reviewer of a manuscript, I think you can make this remark to the editor.

I believe the professional thing to do in this context is just ignoring the pronoun, without any remark whatsoever.

It's curious that this question comes more or less at the same time as this one: How to react to a student proselytising during office hours? . I think the two settings are more similar than it seems at first sight. This is a context in which you should focus on content and stick to business, not try to convince the paper's author of his/her mistakes on a matter unrelated to the content of the paper, even if you believe it's for the greater good.

SAK 11/04/2018.

I realized a long time ago that there's very little to be done in situations like these, because regardless of what you say, they can always resort to the grammar-defense: he is an accepted pronoun in the case of gender-neutrality, so in their eyes, they're just speaking English.

It doesn't cross their mind that, hey, negro is an accepted English word as well, so maybe it would be acceptable to use that word to describe black people too, no? Of course, today, that wouldn't fly: we live in a world where that word is no longer acceptable.

Similarly, all you can do is wait until people evolve enough until the consensus changes in favor of they, and not he, as the appropiate gender-neutral pronoun. There's definitely a clear trend towards they, so it might happen sooner than you think, but, really, waiting is all you can do. Making a fuss about this is going to make people become defensive (because personal egos are more important than deep societal issues) and that isn't going to end well for you.

Malandy 11/08/2018.

Well, to bring up a point that only seems to have been in comments...

If you don't care about your anonymity, or those whose anonymity partially depends on your anonymity, then go ahead and say you're a woman.

Else, you might have to say nothing, because by making a note about gendered pronouns, could be taken to hint that you are a woman, because a man is assumed to be less likely to bring the topic up.

Although, men do make such notes, as Mike says in his comment:

I (a man) always tell authors who refer to me by gender that it is inappropriate to bring an imagined gender into a technical discussion.

Is this blind-bag reviewing, or not?

Mike 11/13/2018.

I encourage you to speak up. As you suggested, it's probably fair to think of it as a minor slip-up, indicating ignorance or implicit bias rather than overt bias or intent to harm — so your response should probably treat it as such. But nothing will improve if we stay silent.

Below I'll say how I might respond, but first I want to address the many wrong-headed arguments against responding that I've seen on this page, so I'll make a list and respond to each. I'll be paraphrasing, but I think these are fair representations of the various points.

• English evolved over centuries to arrive at gender-neutral "he". English evolved in societies that were generally swamps of overt misogyny. The fact that the patriarchy has always done it this way doesn't mean it should always be done this way. Nor do modern notions of equality expunge history of its inequalities. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all Men are created equal", women really did not have equal rights (not to mention non-white or even just non-rich men), and it's silly to pretend that we're doing anything but rewriting the text by interpreting that to include women.

• There's no good alternative. Many of the comments have refuted this pretty well. Pronouns can be avoided altogether by talking about "the reviewer" or similar. Alternatively, singular "they" is actually deemed acceptable by many authorities, and will get the point across in any case.

• The authors might have a different first language where default-masculine is totally standard throughout many of their language structures. That's fine, but now they're communicating in English — and in a professional setting.

• But the authors weren't even assuming your gender. That doesn't matter; it's still problematic to use "he". While ethicists will talk about intent being important for deciding whether or not an action is ethical, there are also considerations about reckless disregard for the consequences. Reckless homicide is still homicide. If they offended you by their reckless and unnecessary use of a masculine pronoun (minor though the offense may be), it was still offensive.

• Not everyone can agree that what they did was problematic. That's true, just as not everyone can agree that it wasn't problematic. We fight for our own principles. If we only stood up on unanimous decisions, we would never stand up — and there would be no point anyway.

• It's too minor to bother with. As you said, it's really about your status as a full and equal member of your community — which is not minor. You deserve respect.

• Don't start trouble. You're not the one who started it.

• An academic review isn't the appropriate venue to introduce your feelings or politics. Again, you didn't start this; the authors are the ones who acted unprofessionally by introducing some imagined gender. They communicated poorly, and it is absolutely a reviewer's job to suggest improvements and to act as the arbiter of standards in the community. Suppose they had said something that was clearly intentionally and extremely racist. Would it still be inappropriate to address the matter?

• You'll harm your professional relationships. This is anonymous review. The editor you're dealing with is the only person who will know who you are, and in my experience they are professionals who understand that they need to keep things professional — though it is true that highly specialized journals survive because they are run by individuals who are in that specialized field, and thus may be more likely to encounter you personally, in which case you may need to use your judgment. The authors won't know who you are, and might just become more conscientious in their treatment of women in your field — possibly including you personally. If you can't speak up now, when can you?

• You'll pierce the veil of anonymity by revealing your gender. You don't need to refer to your gender at all. I'm a man, and I always advise authors who refer to me using a gender that it's not professional. I don't recall ever mentioning my gender when I did that. In any case, revealing your gender would only be a partial piercing of that veil, narrowing down the list of possible reviewers to people who might care about this sort of thing.

• You can't change anything. In each case where I've advised authors not to use masculine pronouns for anonymous reviewers and where there's been another round of revisions (so that I saw a response from them), they've apologized and said they won't do it again. I can't say whether they took the lesson on equality to heart, but as long as their words change that was a positive outcome.

• They don't deserve to be punished for your feelings. This isn't punishment; this is a very private communication, limiting the extent of any embarrassment or any other consequences they may experience. Whereas many commenters here are suggesting that their use of the masculine is not a big deal, I would also point out that your response will not be a big deal. All you're doing is giving them a tiny bit of sound advice. And this isn't just about feelings; it's about equality in the workplace.

So we're left with the conclusion that we really should say something, but the issue is what to actually say. I can't claim to have the optimal solution, but I can say what I do in this situation and what my reasoning is. I generally write something along these lines after anything else I have to say:

In their response, the authors referred to the anonymous reviewer's concerns as "his" concerns, despite not knowing the reviewer's gender. The use of masculine pronouns in gender-neutral situations is no longer considered correct in modern English, and is generally perceived as unacceptable in a professional setting. In cases like this, it would probably be more effective to write things like "the reviewer's concerns". Though this is a minor issue, we all need to be careful and make an effort to maintain a professional and inclusive environment for the benefit of our shared field.

Though the wording is a bit awkward in places, I have some motivation for it. Obviously, I want to get the point across without the authors becoming defensive. So I start off by stating the facts as plainly as possible — they really did write that, and didn't know the reviewer's gender. Then I de-personalize it by using the passive voice and referring neither to the authors nor to myself; I talk about things like "correctness" and "professionalism" to point towards external standards that are generally accepted rather than some random reviewer's idiosyncrasies. I suggest a more appropriate alternative, couching it as "effective" in an effort to appeal to practical-minded authors. I make sure to say that this is a minor issue because (as evidenced on this page) some people may overreact and take it as a personal accusation of some grave moral defect or an implication that the authors are irredeemable monster; it's just a one-off mistake made by people who are probably quite decent individuals. I try to defuse potential defensiveness by including myself and saying "we" have to do this and by talking about the benefit of our shared field. And I say that we need to be "careful" and "make an effort" to suggest that these things aren't always obvious and automatic.

Again, though, that's just what I would write. Some commenters have suggested that you might specifically say that you are a woman. I can't claim to have any insight on that; I can imagine it might be counterproductive for anyone not inclined to agree with you anyway, or it might be persuasive to people who didn't realize actual women might feel this way, or maybe it'll just plain make you feel better for standing up for yourself (which is also a valid objective). You're the best judge of that. In a similar vein, while I don't want to start tone policing, I'll just point out that this page also demonstrates that some people are triggered by words like "feminist", "misogynist", and "microagression" (not to mention "triggered"), which can push the discussion toward derailment. Evidently, people get distracted by the words themselves. They fail to notice that you use them not as some sort of rationale for why you should feel this way, but in an effort to communicate what you actually do feel; the communication breaks down. While I find such objections childish and feeble-minded, there's no arguing with the fact that they occur. And if you want to maximize your likelihood of making a positive impact, it may be better to avoid them. So sticking to your specific feelings in this particular case, rather than appealing to the more general context, would be the more effective path.

BeauGeste 11/10/2018.

I assume there is an editor. So I would ask the editor to let the referee know that their readership and authors are male and female and they should not presuppose a male author through the use of their pronouns. This way you don't embarrass the referees and also don't enter into confrontation with them.

J... 11/06/2018.

I'm going to suggest something a bit different - others have hinted at this, but really there are two activities here that are being terribly conflated and should really be addressed completely separately.

As far as this specific review goes, I would completely drop it. The issue is not relevant to the review whatsoever and there are enough unknowns here to preclude your knowing the author acted out of malice (which, in fact, it is most likely the opposite case - that they wrote this with your identity being no more than an anonymous talking head and without giving it a second thought). This is issue one.

The second issue is your desire to raise awareness about gender issues in academia generally. This is doubly so the case if we default to the assumption that the original author was not being malicious but rather just defaulting to a perfectly normal standard of language which appears to be falling out of popular favour (and which you would like to change).

Consider now the second goal and the things you might do to effectively achieve that goal. What will it achieve to write a letter to the author? The editor? Probably close to nothing, and you risk introducing confusion and uncertainty into the review process. Going straight back to the author or editor here is a high-controversy, low-impact action. You won't change many peoples' ideas and you risk exposing yourself to blowback.

If this is an issue that is important to you I would suggest that you take this up as a completely separate activity entirely disconnected from this specific review. If it's an issue with one journal, surely it must be an issue with all journals and reviewers and authors in the field. Do you want to spend time and effort changing one author's mind? Or one journal's? Or do you want to actually do something effective to promote this type of change across the field?

I feel your efforts would be better rewarded by focusing them away from this specific review - why not completely independently make contact with all of the major journals in your field? Raise it as an issue on its own and pursue it on its own merits - this turns it into a general issue rather than a specific one (which you might be seen to have a conflict of interest regarding the particular review in question).

Aaron 11/07/2018.

The person is not necessarily assuming you are male. Similar to what you encountered, many women use "she" or "her" when the gender is unknown. Not using a pronoun in that spot may have made the sentence structure read awkwardly, and they might not be aware of the increasing use of "they" in such a case.

I have had women use "she" or "her" when writing about me when they did not know that I was male. I was annoyed for just a few seconds, until I realized that I occasionally do the same thing in reverse, and for that reason I have started using "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. But not everyone does that.

In short: They might not be assuming you are male, but they had to write something in that spot.

Mari-Lou A 11/09/2018.

How often was the possessive adjective "his" or pronoun "he" used? Once, twice or several times? It sounds like it was used once.

The OP acknowledged it was probably a simple mistake, a minor blip so she should treat it like one. Ignore it.

If it happens again with the same author(s), she should not shy from pointing out "their" repeated and unintentional blunder to the editor or in a friendly personal email.

anonymous 11/08/2018.

This is an issue that is best addressed through the editor of the journal. Ultimately the best solution might be for a revision of the "Guide for Authors" noting the correct form of address (i.e., "reviewer one," "reviewer two," or "they"). A revision to the "Guide for Authors" would also allow editors more opportunity in the future to correct authors to ensure appropriate forms of address.

While the desire to address the author is understandable, I don't see how it could be done without violating any of the types of blind review:

• Single Blind - They might now know enough to tell who you are in a field with low representation.
• Double Blind - Same as single blind, plus for reasons that other answers have noted, you shouldn't be assuming their national origin.
• Triple Blind - Same as above, plus the editor now has enough information to maybe guess who you are.

Another consideration is if the author sees your feedback along with a reject notice from the editor. Depending upon their basis, they might assume that you were unduly harsh in your review because of the microaggression. It's also going to be a one-way communication which generally makes for a poor learning experience on the part of the author.

Ken 11/08/2018.

Depending on culture the response may be male dominated and therefore the term 'he' is used mindlessly, and especially if the gender is unknown. Names don't give away gender all the time either - especially across cultures.

The term reviewer would be neutral.

There are some points of issue: Are you on a face-to-face known basis or simply on a web distance unknown basis?

If you are not on a face-to-face basis with someone then it may not be important and depending on how your gravy train works it is probably not important. However if you are known face to face - then sure you might mention you do like to be referred to as she and not he.

In some terms let us put it this way if you are receiving work because of a 'perception' don't kill your gravy train. You KNOW who you are (or maybe not and that is the issue).

Perhaps you want to be recognized as a woman achieving, and not simply as a person achieving?

If someone is presenting an award - one likes to be referred to correctly, but if they pay me 2 million dollars and refer to me as she did an excellent job.. well I certainly did and thank you.

They may get the gender wrong but the pay and the accolade was correct. Better than \$0 and saying Sally did such a wonderful job ... just missed the mark completely.

Again if I am on the web writing some code for someone and they are paying me and saying she is fantastic - well, maybe it is a typo, maybe not .. but hey I don't know them personally and maybe they feel comfortable working with a she. I am not going to tell them nor will I tell them if I am Jewish, Chinese, or whatever. I want the work and they can say man that Indian guy is doing great work...As long as they pay me and keep sending me requests for jobs...

O. R. Mapper 11/07/2018.

If the answer to the reviewer was restricted in length (based on characters), my suggestion is to ignore it.

In that case, "he" is simply one of the shortest pronouns available in English, and in length-limited texts, every character may count when struggling for including another statement relevant to the content of the paper or of the review.

That doesn't mean there are no better choices available, such as using "R" to refer to the reviewer (or "R1", "R2", ..., in the case of multiple reviewers) in a stylistically clumsy (based on current preferences, where repeated mentions of the same object are typically substituted with pronouns - this may be changing, of course), but short and gender-agnostic way.