Is it OK to “neutralize” someone’s gender when they haven’t asked you to? Interpreting Gender Neutral Language in Reference Letters (by Dr Karen Pennesi)

Karen Pennesi, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Western Ontario, became a friend of BILD and guest blogger over three years ago during her sabbatical time in Montreal. We are delighted to welcome her back.

I write this post looking for some insights. I was recently evaluating a set of scholarship applications and was struck by the use of gender neutral language in two of the reference letters. After reading so many letters that followed the conventions of using gendered pronouns and referring to the students by first or last name, I found the use of “they/their” and other unspecified expressions like “the candidate” or “the applicant” really caught my attention. It seemed awkward and forced so I tried to figure out why.

Here are some of the phrases excerpted from the letters, followed by letters about the same student written by a different referee. I have used pseudonyms.

First Example

Professor A wrote:

Michael started the program… and completed their thesis… their research investigated…. The candidate successfully obtained…Michael demonstrated…. The candidate also…. Michael presented their research… I hired the candidate… They will compare…. I support their application…

Compare this to another letter for the same student written by Professor B:

Mr. Michael Green… his degree… his course work… He achieved… He impressed… He was nominated… His ideas… Michael has expertise… Mr. Green is…. He has shown…I offer Mr. Michael Green…

Second Example

Professor A:

Martha started the program… completed their thesis… Their research was… The applicant’s thesis had…. Martha’s thesis…the applicant wrote… The applicant and I are working on… their thesis…The applicant will continue… the applicant’s proposed research will… through their research…The applicant has demonstrated… the applicant is deserving…

Compare this to another letter for the same student, also written by Professor B:

Ms. Martha Sottosanti has begun…based on her performance…her ability…she was consistent…she will present…her initiative…her course work…she demonstrates…Ms. Sottosanti’s proposed research… Ms. Sottosanti quickly…embraced…

My first reaction to reading the two letters from Prof. A was that they came across as too impersonal. Referring to the student as “the applicant” and using the third person pronoun created too much distance between writer and student when a reference letter is supposed to offer an evaluation based on a close working relationship. It seemed to me to be sending mixed signals. If you know the student well, why write in such a generic way?

The comments were very positive in both cases so it was supposed to be a good recommendation, and familiarity was marked by the use of the first name only. But then why this very deliberate effort to be gender neutral and impersonal, like we weren’t supposed to know who it was referring to? It’s not like a blind manuscript review where you don’t know who the author is. The names of both the student and the letter writer are indicated in several places.

My next reaction was to question whether the students being described were identifying as non-binary or gender non-conforming. Maybe they requested the referee to use the pronouns they/their. I discarded this idea when I read the letters from Professor B, who uses the gendered pronouns he/she and titles Ms. and Mr. to refer to the same students. Also, I know both of the students and from what I have observed, they are pretty clearly presenting as cis-male and cis-female. I have never heard anyone else use “they” pronouns in reference to these students. After I read the second letter from Prof. A about the second student, using the same gender neutral language, I figured that it was the choice of Prof. A to write like this, rather than the choice of each of these students.

I suspect that Prof. A uses this gender neutral style as a default when writing all reference letters, though I cannot say for sure since they are from a different university. (I use “they” here to refer to Prof. A to maintain gender ambiguity and preserve anonymity.)

So that’s where it gets tricky for me. Prof. A is using gender neutral language to describe specified individuals who are apparently cisgender. But rather than “neutralizing” gender to de-emphasize it, doing this actually calls attention to gender in a context where a specific individual’s gender is known to both writer and reader. It creates an ambiguity that to me seems unnecessary, artificial, and distracting. It made me start wondering about how I had interpreted the gender presentation of these students: was I missing something? I became irritated, wondering why I was wasting time thinking about gender when I should just be thinking about the student’s academic qualities.

Reading reference letters always requires some reading between the lines and making inferences about the overall tone from particular phrasing. For me, the gender neutral language in reference to known, gendered individuals added an extra layer of interpretation that I had to work through without justification, in terms of the evaluation task. As I wrote above, it left me with an impression of an impersonal or distanced relationship between the letter writer and the student, which goes against the aim of the letter. What was Prof. A really trying to indicate here?

Now, I am able to recognize my own language ideologies at work and overlook my initial impressions, telling myself that either way, it doesn’t matter. I am assessing the merits of the students’ achievements and proposal. Still if it became a distraction for me, it might also be a distraction or cause a negative impression in other evaluators, and that could be detrimental to the student being assessed.

Also, I wondered how the students would feel about being referred to in this gender neutral way in the letters. Do they know? Why is Prof. A making this pronoun choice if it is not at the request of the students? Is Prof. A trying to lead by example in suggesting that we all start using gender neutral language in writing reference letters? Is a formal recommendation letter an appropriate genre for such linguistic activism? Or is it exactly where we should be starting? Are we headed toward using gender neutral language in all contexts? Or just in some contexts, and if only some, which ones?

For me, the big question is this: Is choosing to “neutralize” someone’s gender the same kind of offence as referring to someone with a gendered pronoun that they don’t identify with? It seems to be different in some way, but how and why?

In my experience, gender neutral language in writing is used most commonly in contexts where individual identity is either unknown or irrelevant (“someone left their keys in the washroom” or “the applicant should submit their photo online”). In fact, this usage of the third person singular “they” has been part of English for at least two hundred years. In reference to specific individuals, current best practice is to use their preferred pronouns. This means that using they/them/their for individuals is acceptable in references to people who identify as non-binary. However, using a gender neutral pronoun to refer to a specific individual who has not stated a preference for that seems to put these conventional practices in conflict with each other.

I am comfortable using gender neutral language to refer to unspecified individuals in various spoken and written contexts. And I am getting used to seeing they/their in more formal writing in reference to single individuals who choose these pronouns for themselves. But something about this genre of writing (formal reference letter) and this particular context (cisgender, named individual) made me think it was inappropriate (for now?). Is this just language change in progress, reflecting a move toward inclusivity and away from hegemonic gender binaries? I welcome discussion of these issues from others who study language and from those who imagine themselves in this situation. Do you write about others like Prof. A did? Would you mind if someone wrote about you in that way?

Image Credits:

1. Straw Romania Easter Eggs. By Max Pixel.

2. Gender neutral. By Don clark atlanta.

3. Balloons. No attribution required.

4. Sad Woman Esteem Doubt Free Photo by cristinaureta.

5. Reading between the lines. By Eric Seynaeve.

6. The problem of choice. By

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