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While reading through plenty of scientific papers for my thesis relating to Human Computer Interaction (HCI), I am under the impression almost everybody refers to users/subjects/persons/... as 'she'.

A quick check on English.SE indicates this is a relatively new trend "to balance out the perceived sexism".

Is this default or recommended in recent scientific HCI papers?


UPDATE: So perhaps English.SE can help me out. It seems like this question is already more on topic.

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Well, I have found that while it may be an attempt to balance out the sexism, another one has been introduced by it. When talking about users not reading messages and other behaviour you need to design around, quite often "she" is used. While when talking about smart design(er)s, or program(mer)s "he" tends to get used... But then again, maybe my gender is making me more sensitive to these things and I don't notice the occurences where it is the other way round... :-) –  Marjan Venema Aug 16 '11 at 11:41
    
It seems like you already got your answer on english.se –  Matt Rockwell Aug 16 '11 at 11:43
    
oh man - - closed just as I put a UX slant on the answer :-) –  Roger Attrill Aug 16 '11 at 12:04
    
@Roger: I was posting a UX answer as well as I don't really see how closing this as off-topic would help anyone in the future. In what way is this off-topic? Since it also applies to language? I tried closing as duplicate of the question on English.SE but this wasn't possible. P.s.: I guess the real answer to my question is "no". –  Steven Jeuris Aug 16 '11 at 12:08
    
Ok I have changed my mind and voted to reopen. The feedback started to take a UX turn, although initially the question seemed slightly off topic and already answered. –  Matt Rockwell Aug 16 '11 at 12:52
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2 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I tend to deliberately avoid the situation with a variety of alternatives, including, but not limited to the user and they. And in any case, it simplifies the issue a bit because once you use he or she you have to concern yourself with use of his, her, hers, etc.

I am not alone:

The Microsoft user experience guidelines is about 880 pages and refers to he in just one sentence, she in just two different sentences, and he or she in just one. But the user is used 550 times and they 384 times

The Apple Human Interface Guidelines does not use he or she once in some 280 pages but the user comes up about 445 times and they 835 times.

[Those figures are adjusted to exclude the user when used as part of the term the user experience]

I can't speak for scientific writing generally, but I do find it 'of note' these days when a text chooses to use she or he. I don't see that choosing the opposite of he really addresses the balance so much as tries to overcompensate for what I agree has been an imbalance in the past.

But you are asking an audience that is probably somewhat biased towards the user !!

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Can we determine from this that Apple is more than twice as concerned as Microsoft about the user, because the 'per page' usage of the term 'the user' in their ux guidelines outweighs the other by two and a half times...? –  Roger Attrill Aug 16 '11 at 12:12
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No, that would be stretching statistics a bit :-). I don't think one can glean "concern" from frequency of use. Maybe they just are a teensy bit OCD in their use of the term... –  Marjan Venema Aug 16 '11 at 12:59
    
I just bumped into this issue, and realize this is not really a solution at all. How do I refer to 'the user'? As 'his' or 'her'? Or always use plural and refer to 'their'? E.g. "doesn't support the user in managing his activities". –  Steven Jeuris Aug 18 '11 at 11:02
    
it becomes the indefinite singular or generic possessive form (or something like that!) of they - ie 'doesn't support the user in managing their activities'. –  Roger Attrill Aug 18 '11 at 11:09
    
@Steven Jeuris - see this wikipedia article on singular they –  Roger Attrill Aug 18 '11 at 11:23
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No, this is not default in scientific writing. The wikipedia article on 'singular they' sheds some light on the issue.

In the late 20th century, the feminist movement expressed concern regarding the use of generic he in the English language. The feminist claim was that such usage contributes to an assumption that maleness is "standard," and that femaleness is "different". They also claimed that such use is misogynistic. One response to this was an increase in the use of generic she in academic journal articles from around this time.

There are a lot of discussions about this subject, but no standards have been defined for scientific writing as far as I have searched. Some people might approve of singular they, while others might frown upon its usage.

As stated in Roger's answer, a safe bet is to work around this issue by refering to 'the user' instead of she or he.

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