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.

Controversial Post — You may use comments ONLY to suggest improvements. You may use answers ONLY to provide a solution to the specific question asked above. Moderators will remove debates, arguments or opinions without notice.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Nov 13 at 3:56

22 Answers 22

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.

Controversial Post — You may use comments ONLY to suggest improvements. You may use answers ONLY to provide a solution to the specific question asked above. Moderators will remove debates, arguments or opinions without notice.

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    On the one hand it's necessary to bring these issues up to improve the state of affairs. On the other hand it probably won't benefit anyone if the reviewees is criticised directly because either a) they aren't being chauvanist, just thoughtless b) they aren't being chauvanist, just English-as-second-language c) they are_ chauvanist so will just discount the reviewer's comment. I think that the best approach would be to address the response to the editor alone, and ask it as a question of some sort - "I notice that <author> said 'his' - do you think that that is just their idiom?" – WillC Nov 4 at 8:59
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    Interesting answer - could you add an example text how one could formulate this ? – Falco Nov 6 at 10:15
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    @Falco I could, however (1) I think it's best not to amend my answer to preserve consistency, and (2) it was OP's idea to write a message and OP is really the best person to write her messages as she knows all the specific details of her situation and I don't. – Dmitry Savostyanov Nov 8 at 8:31
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    I disagree slightly. I view the problem as one of professionalism, not feminism. (However, I agree with the different 'reviewer' versus 'prompts about professional etiquette' hat). The OP's question includes as a woman for gentle informative value for the reader. In your answer, it does not have the same flavour (just an observaton). – Araucaria Nov 10 at 0:03
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    It's the combination of "As a woman" in combination with the (unintended, I'm sure) misattribution of "you feel unhappy about authors not guessing a correct pronoun for you". There's nothing wrong with the second conjunt "not using an appropriate gender-neutral pronoun". I don't think there needs to be another answer plagiarising your main points. It's a good post, imo. I just think that would be a good improvement. That's all. – Araucaria Nov 13 at 19:56

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.

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.

...authors have addressed all issues...

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.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Nov 6 at 15:53
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    I am not sure I would preface with either, "this is a relatively minor issue", nor with "as a female reviewer". Both cast the issue with your gender rather than the issue at hand which is one of presumption by the author. Nevertheless I agree that this is not something that should be ignored. And, in fact, should be highlighted. – alexi2 Nov 9 at 7:10

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.

  • Revealing information about your identity or ideological beliefs threatens your anonymity;
  • 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.

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    @user2357 even if the majority agree with your interpretation, a non negligible number of people will stridently insists that “I wasn’t assuming gender, I was using a gender neutral pronoun.” It’s just not the argument you want to start in the middle of peer review. – user168715 Nov 2 at 19:54
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    @user2357 You're assuming that they're assuming your gender, which is likely not accurate. While it's less common now than in the past, using the masculine personal pronouns as gender-neutral pronouns is still perfectly valid English and many people (especially from earlier generations) were taught this as being the correct set of pronouns to use. It is extremely likely that the author was neither intending offense nor assuming anyone's gender. – reirab Nov 3 at 17:24
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    @user2357 I've almost consistently used he when referring to users in conversation on the internet, and I have never meant it to assume anyone's gender. If someone corrects me on their gender I accept it and carry on. And I don't treat it as a micro-agression or whatever. What I've come to notice is that people are more likely to use the pronoun that refers to them more often in such situations. There might be a psychological basis for that. I'm not certain. I definitely agree here though. Unless the replier knew their gender beforehand it's likely an unconscious writing habit. – The Great Duck Nov 3 at 17:57
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    @eykanal What was uncivil about the deleted comments? I'm curious. How am I going to learn the code necessary to have the right to talk on this website if you never explain your actions? – user2357 Nov 4 at 10:54
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    @user168715 A bit of a nitpick, but it's gender-indefinite, not gender-neutral. The former means you can use it when gender is unknown. The latter means you can use it even if gender is known. – forest Nov 4 at 12:08

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.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Nov 13 at 3:57
  • "P.S. I am a female" may lead to another issue: as women are underrepresented in many fields, and unfortunately math is one of them, in many areas a comment like this combined with the expertise needed to review the particular paper could likely identify the reviewer.... – Nick S Nov 14 at 15:39
  • @NickS a field would have to be exceedingly male-dominated if there's only one woman who can review a paper though. If there're even two women, then it's still a 50% chance of wrong identification. I would be surprised, but it's up to Rebecca who'll know the field best. – Allure Nov 14 at 21:50

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.

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    While I may not agree with some of your comments above, I do believe this is a very reasonable answer to the question. – CramerTV Nov 2 at 18:24
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    I'd suggest that the current italicized formulation (as of revision 1) makes assumptions about the authors' intent. The phrase "his concerns" might presuppose that the reviewer is male; it might alternately be used with gender-neutral intent because, until recently, prescriptive grammar taught people to use male pronouns for unknown individuals. With respect, stating these assumptions as fact might not adequately cover the possible scenarios. I can't seem to think of a formulation that covers both possibilities yet isn't cumbersome. – Mathieu K. Nov 4 at 2:16
  • Minor point: the "and that" yields uncertainty: does it refer back to being advised, or to being presupposed? – Mathieu K. Nov 4 at 2:34
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    I'd phrase it "could be bothersome to some reviewers.". Otherwise, it's also "gender assumption" thing but in opposite direction. – Agent_L Nov 5 at 9:10
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    If the editor forwards it, as an author, I would assume that the reviewer's gender is non-male after this comment, as the comment would be totally off-topic for the review otherwise. I don't think reviewers or editors would want to discuss such issues in the review, if there is no good reason to do so. – allo Nov 7 at 21:20

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.

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.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Nov 13 at 3:59

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.

  • @StrongBad I did not consider it not nice, otherwise I would not have wrote it, but I'm not a moderator, so then it is not up to me to ultimately judge what's nice and what's not. You made a call, thanks for the edit. Edit: Apparently I can also edit other people's answers. I was not aware of this until now. Anyway, the edit stays. – Andrei Nov 2 at 16:38
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    Your edit definitely changes things (to me). It now gives an answer of what you would do and as such offered a course of action with an explanation of why. Your previous answer, was "In short: pick your battles ...". That is sound advice for many things in personal and professional life but doesn't really help most folks, imho. I've removed my down vote. – CramerTV Nov 2 at 23:22
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    @Andrei yes with enough rep you can edit anyone's posts. I made the edit as a regular user and not with my super mod powers. The idea is for everyone to improve our community. Your further edits are great and I think this is now a really good answer. – StrongBad Nov 3 at 14:50
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    "Most people who already answered here believe she needs a push towards a decision, or a public poll on the matter." <- Not sure why you're saying that. – einpoklum Nov 3 at 19:42
  • +1, I don't agree with the idea that gender neutral "he" is inclusive, but strongly agree that people dislike being contradicted, and OP's dilemma is about balancing values with practicality. That OP even asked the question suggests that this value is pretty important to her, and probably out ways the practicality. – Clumsy cat Nov 3 at 19:44

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.

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    I don’t think OP is assuming malice. It’s fairly reasonable to still want to correct this incorrect usage, regardless of intent. – Konrad Rudolph Nov 5 at 12:45
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    However, reviewers are supposed to be anonymous to the authors of the paper. Thus, correcting the use of gender-related pronouns reveals the identity of the reviewer to a certain extent, especially in fields with little women in top positions. If at all, such a correction should be handled by the editor, which leaves open the possibility that the author referred to reviewer B as he, while in truth reviewer D is the woman. – Dohn Joe Nov 5 at 14:35
  • A fair consideration that perhaps reduces the blame from the original author, especially if there was a language issue. Clearly the anonymity must be limited, if the OP is certain the comment in public record refers to her assistance. If there is anonymity during the review process, that suggests there is also moderation where the OP's name has later been inserted, and the moderators clearly need reminding that female invisibility is not acceptable. – Gem Taylor Nov 9 at 12:31
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    It needs to be addressed because QED, it encourages that kind of behaviour which assumes that an academic is male. – Araucaria Nov 13 at 23:00

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.

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    Having any P.S. at all would hint that OP is a woman, since no man would add a P.S like that. ... There's basically no way to assert any of OP's characteristics without scratching away anonymity. – Malandy Nov 3 at 1:53
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    "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." As a native speaker, I'd disagree. While most native speakers are 'aware' of the gender-neutral 'they' and will understand it, many (especially from older generations) still dislike it, consider it grammatically incorrect, and don't use it. There is a reason your English courses taught you that this usage is incorrect. It's because many native English speakers do still consider it incorrect, even if I'd personally disagree with them. – reirab Nov 3 at 17:28
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    @Malandy For what it's worth, I call out every single instance of gendering I see in responses to my reviews with a note similar to TheJack's suggestion — even though they always correctly assume that I am a man. It is not appropriate for them to bring an imagined gender into things with my reviews, just as it is inappropriate with Rebecca J. Stones'. – Mike Nov 3 at 23:48

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.

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    It's interesting that you draw that parallel with the proselytization question, because there, everyone seems to agree that when the OP says "I don't want to be put in a similar situation again", there is some right not to be put in that situation, and so the OP should address it directly. Yet here, the OP has been put in a situation she dislikes (and likely will be again in the future), and only speaking up has any chance of changing that, but is being advised that she should not speak up. She's not the one creating this situation; the authors using a masculine pronoun are. – Mike Nov 7 at 16:45
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    @Mike I am not comparing OP here to the professor in that question, I am comparing her to the student. The student tries to convince the professor of his/her mistakes in not following the cult of Cthulhu the Almighty; the fact that there are so many unbelievers is a situation he dislikes, and he believes he is acting for the greater good. – Federico Poloni Nov 8 at 12:00
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    I understood what you were trying to imply. What I am saying is that you choose to overlook the fact that the OP here did not ask to be referred to in the masculine; you're suggesting that she's starting something by responding to unprofessional behavior. Apparently the other OP had not brought up any religious beliefs whatsoever before the student started proselytizing. Similarly, this OP had not brought gender into the discussion before she was referred to with a male pronoun. In both cases, the OP has been subjected to something they find unpleasant and unprofessional. – Mike Nov 8 at 13:44
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    @Mike I think the consensus here is that the use of that pronoun is probably involuntary. It's OP who is planning to bring gender into the discussion and derailing what has been up to now a professional exchange. – Federico Poloni Nov 8 at 13:51

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.

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    It's not even about singular "they", which some may find awkward. A simple "he or she" would also work. But you can't do that because... grammar. – henning Nov 4 at 15:53
  • @SAK I disagree with your conclusion. You don't avoid using the word negro because people shut up and waited for change. Why would the change have happened, except that people explained that they found it offensive? If, in the authors' eyes, "they're just speaking English", then how could they possibly realize that anyone wants that particular usage to change unless they are told? – Mike Nov 7 at 14:35
  • @Mike You've misunderstood the answer. Let me break it down for you: in this particular context (a one-off professional, indirect correspondence with anonymous authors through a 3rd party editor), there's little you can do, and even if you tried, you'd be shut down and refuted immediately. In other contexts, you may be able to do more, in which case, my advice of just waiting obviously ceases to apply. It is in this way that change occurs: because there are certain contexts where people do (and should) speak up. But that doesn't mean you should be doing it 24/7. – SAK Nov 7 at 17:04
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    For example, writing this question which has been viewed 22.000 times has caused change, I guarantee you ... much more than would have been achieved if she had made a fuss in her particular situation. – SAK Nov 7 at 17:06
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    I disagree that she can't change anything directly. I (a man) always correct authors who refer to me using gender, and explain that it is not appropriate to assume gender of an anonymous reviewer. This happens to me frequently, and I have received responses from authors who apologize and suggest that they will avoid it in the future. It may well be true that the authors were pandering to me by apologizing, but what matters to me is that they likely really will avoid it in the future because a colleague has told them it is unacceptable. And the fewer people who have to face this the better. – Mike Nov 7 at 17:11

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?

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    1. In a sufficiently small academic community, revealing one's identity compromises the anonymity of others. 2. Pointing out usage of a gendered pronoun reveals nothing about one's own gender – trichoplax Nov 5 at 21:07
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    @trichoplax - How... Oh, okay, adding 1. ... On 2. ... It feels more likely that more women would find the gendered pronoun notable than men would, so pointing out the usage hints that the speaker is a woman? – Malandy Nov 5 at 21:27
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    I don't have statistics to say either way, but it may well be that in a field with more men than women, there are more men objecting to gendered pronouns than women. But even in a field where an objector is statistically more likely to be female, only a likelihood is being revealed, not a concrete gender. Also there are plenty of men who feel strongly about this, and plenty of women who don't care either way. – trichoplax Nov 5 at 22:17
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    As I mentioned in another 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. This is just one more way in which it's a bad idea to try to divine the referee's identity by over-interpreting details in the response. In any case, what better time to try to effect change than in an anonymous setting? – Mike Nov 7 at 14:42
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    @Mike - Thank you! Added to the answer. Not sure how to use the rest of your comment since it seems off-topic from the core of my answer. You do raise some good points. – Malandy Nov 8 at 3:23

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.

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    I like the assembled arguments and counter arguments that you've put in this post. But, while there's a strong hint of what you propose (you list reasons that refute all the arguments against responding), you never explicitly include an advice on what to do. If you could collect your suggestion in one final paragraph and maybe propose how you would respond (e.g. "I would include, as a last comment to the authors, a remark that I find using gender pronouns in their response is unprofessional, without mentioning my gender", plus a potential phrasing to would use), this would be a great answer. – penelope Nov 9 at 13:42
  • @penelope Thanks. I've added the sort of thing I write in these cases, and a [possibly too-detailed :)] explanation of my reasoning. – Mike Nov 10 at 1:58
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    some people are triggered by words like "feminist" and "microagression" -- speak for yourself. Lots of people see the words for fashionable markers that have lost their meaning (feminist) or ideological shibboleths whose validity rests upon assumptions swept under the carpet (microaggression). You could equally well argue I'm "triggered" by the word "synergy" because every time I hear it, I can't help wonder what BS I'm being sold (despite the real meaning that this word might have in a better world). – darij grinberg Nov 12 at 11:18
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    Thanks for the addition, I really like this answer now. Your wording in the proposed response might be a bit too verbose for my style, but the reasoning is great, and would allow anybody to write a similar (or shorter) response in their own style. And as always, the answers to "controversial" questions are more likely to attract both up- and down-votes I guess... – penelope Nov 12 at 11:42

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.

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).

  • I'm not really sure I personally agree to this answer (the OP cares and is considering taking action regarding this issue, or, rather, instance; suggesting that she either should do more or nothing at all is a bit... pushy), +1 because it's a well argumented and presented different perspective. – penelope Nov 9 at 13:58
  • @penelope I understand that OP cares about this specific incident. I guess my point is that, regardless of that, there are few actions that can be taken which with any probability to produce a positive outcome. Raising awareness behind closed doors isn't something that ever happens. You take on all the risks of taking a stand and don't really have anything substantial to profit from it. – J... Nov 9 at 14:09

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.

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    I've also seen many male authors use it when writing articles because female empowerment, or something along those lines. Or worse still—alternating between the two on every occasion a pronoun is used... – Kaji Nov 12 at 4:28

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.

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...

  • 5
    This is a reasonable general answer about the workplace but misses the academic nuances and the specifics about the relationship between a reviewer and an editor and authors. – StrongBad Nov 4 at 13:55
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    @Marco13 reviews are supposed to be impartial and related to the work and avoid personal issues. The reviewer is supposed to stay anonymous and conversations with the editors are generally very limited/non-existent. The number of potential reviewers is limited and there is potential for backlash. If this was a colleague using the wrong gender in a meeting, it would be more general to the workplace. Finally, there is a lot of microagression and sexism in the academic workplace, so even if the question was of general interest, it seems a very good fit here. – StrongBad Nov 4 at 23:46
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    @StrongBad The anonymity/backlash issue looks like a valid point. But at this level of analysis, it has to be considered in similar forms in similar situations, and as such, is not specific to academia. The broader question is whether someone should complain about everything that she considers as a "microaggression". You can find this everywhere if you're actively looking for it and want to stir things up (that's what I wanted to point out by mentioning the "editress"...). Whether this sort of question and the attention does not do more harm than good? Time will tell. I'm worried. – Marco13 Nov 5 at 0:17
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    This answer is barely coherent and doesn't suggest the answer-er even knows what peer review is. – Azor Ahai Nov 6 at 1:07
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    @Ken Who do you think does "editorial review"? This is a site for people to get expert answers, not guesses from people unfamiliar with academia. – Azor Ahai Nov 6 at 1:30

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.

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.

  • Could any of the downvoters explain what is wrong with this answer, please? – O. R. Mapper Nov 8 at 11:04
  • I'm still considering whether to downvote this or not (I haven't yet and find it borderline), my two issues with your answer are: a) you're only offering an answer for one specific and not very common case (a very small to negligible portion of the reviews I did were length limited and usually allowed attaching a pdf or text file with the response), so it's a very partial answer, and b) I personally don't agree that using they over he is a problem even in character limited reviews - the pronoun is not going to be used more than a handful of times, producing an overhead of ~10 characters. – penelope Nov 9 at 14:03
  • @penelope: I understand. For a), I think this is very field-dependent. In my CS subdiscipline, length limitations are pretty much the norm. Reviews and author responses are typically entered in web-based forms, and if you exceed the length limit, you simply cannot submit your input. Likewise, coming from a field with strict length limitations (in characters and/or pages), the ~10 characters you mention in b) seem like a valuable resource to me that can mean adding or dropping one or two significant words. I fully agree this answer applies only to certain fields; given the differences ... – O. R. Mapper Nov 9 at 14:10
  • ... between academic disciplines and cultures, I think it is often the case here on Academia SE that for a single question, very different answers are actually the "best" answers depending on the specific preconditions from certain fields or countries. – O. R. Mapper Nov 9 at 14:12
  • Once again, I'd ask the downvoters to explain what is wrong with this answer. I am rather baffled about the negative response this is receiving. Is there any factual problem with what I have written? – O. R. Mapper Nov 11 at 21:36

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