Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:

Feature Christmas 2019: Fight the Power

Time’s up for he and him as the default pronouns for doctors

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 16 December 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6565

Rapid Response:

Re: Time’s up for he and him as the default pronouns for doctors

Dear Editor

The issue of using a suitable pronoun for a person whose gender is not known is a regular problem in the English language.

As part of a workshop for GP Registrars and GP Educational Supervisors, I included an exercise to illustrate the common hidden bias in our use of pronouns in this situation. After showing a slide of question words (how, what, when, etc), I then asked everyone to join in a conversation with me. Reading the words on a slide, everyone in the room said, “have you seen the surgeon yet?”, to which I replied “yes”.

Everybody was then encouraged to respond at the same time, by asking a suitable question. Of the 105 participants, about 80 said “what did he say?” The remaining 25 people either said nothing, or said things such as “how did it go?” or “good”. Nobody used the word ‘she’ or any female pronoun.

This short, fun exercise illustrates our inherent bias to use the pronoun ‘he’ when the person’s gender is unknown. In this group, over half were female doctors, some of whom had worked as surgeons prior to starting GP training. It is likely that everyone in the room believed they were not discriminatory on grounds of gender, and many actively promoted the interests of female doctors. Yet even in this group, most people used ‘he’, demonstrating our societal inherent bias when the gender is unknown.

The article by Elizabeth Loder promotes our active use of ‘she’ when the gender is unknown. Alternatives include using ‘they’ as a singular, using ‘he/she’, or using made-up gender-neutral words such as ‘ze’. Whatever pronouns we use, it is time to stop using the generic ‘he’ which is lazy, subconsciously discriminatory and no longer acceptable.

Competing interests: No competing interests

14 January 2020
Damian Kenny
Retired GP and Medical Educationalist
Dursley, England, Europe