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There have been a couple of times recently when someone has referred to me as "mate" in their comments or responses. I don't tend to be very sensitive about this stuff, and have really found very little sexism during my tenure as a computer professional. However, since my Stackoverflow userID is my first name ("Melanie"), I would think it'd be fairly obvious that I'm not a "mate."

I find this amusing more than offensive, but I have been tempted to respond by pointing out my gender. I don't want to offend anyone else in turn, but I do think people shouldn't automatically assume I'm a guy, even if they don't happen to notice my name. Thoughts?

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Respond by calling them "lass"? On a more serious note, it might be they didn't notice the name - happens to me sometimes that I don't, even when I'm responding to a comment. But why not point it out, friendly, unless they give reason to think they did it on purpose. –  Daniel Fischer Apr 11 '13 at 21:01
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'it'd be fairly obvious that I'm not a "mate."' - Obvious to native speakers, not everyone. And you are assuming that people noticed your username in the first place... –  Yannis Apr 11 '13 at 21:03
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@DanielFischer "mate" is fairly commonly used in the UK (even for women sometimes), and I don't think there's anything wrong with it. No idea how it's used in the US though. –  Yannis Apr 11 '13 at 21:06
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@Melanie I don't think there's any slight intended here. I wouldn't worry too much about it. –  Anna Lear Apr 11 '13 at 21:08
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@Melanie See Seth's answer. I lived in the UK briefly, and yes it was quite common to call someone "mate", even women. I'm not 100% sure it's gender neutral, but it's certainly not only used for men and you shouldn't take offense. A couple of Australians friends also use it extensively, but I don't remember if they ever used it for women. –  Yannis Apr 11 '13 at 21:09
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IMHO, "mate" is fairly benign. Now, if someone starts out a comment with, "Greetings, my testicle-adorned brother in maleness!"... flag it. –  Shog9 Apr 11 '13 at 21:13
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@Shog9 That's good advice, my testicle-adorned brother in maleness! –  Yannis Apr 11 '13 at 21:14
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@Shog9 You owe me either a drink or a laptop screen... –  Bart Apr 11 '13 at 21:16
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Just a personal interpretation of course, but I have a hunch that quite a few non-native speakers adopt a language they perceive as "cool". Trouble is that being cool is one of the hardest parts of a foreign language and it is easy to sound completely wrong without even knowing it. Again, can't be sure, but I think I have seen it quite often here on SO. –  Monolo Apr 11 '13 at 21:16
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@Yannis: yeah mate, us Aussies do use it quite a bit. In my experience, we often include women among our "mates" (i.e. friends), but would less often refer to a woman as "mate". That said, no-one would think it improper if you did refer to a woman with "mate". –  Mac Apr 11 '13 at 21:18
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The literal meaning of "mate" is not gender-specific. I'm not sure what that means for the common colloquial usage; it's not part of my particular dialect. –  Keith Thompson Apr 11 '13 at 21:18
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Even though the word "mate" can be used with regard to women, this question is more general than that. Even simple pronouns are gender-sensitive and often used wrongly. –  Lev Levitsky Apr 11 '13 at 21:22
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@FredericHamidi - yeah, I understand. I am assuming no harm. My real concern is whether I should point it out and risk offending someone else. But now, since it seems that in at least some parts of the world "mate" can be used for both men and women, this becomes a true non-issue. But if any of youse ever Shog9's suggestion with me, watch out! ;) –  Melanie Apr 11 '13 at 21:29
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@KeithThompson Speaking on behalf of people from NZ, Australia, and the UK: when the word 'mate' is used it is a colloquialism that is gender neutral, although it is more frequently used by males when referring to other male friends (women don't tend to use it so much unless they are the beer-swilling trailor-park dwelling types). –  slugster Apr 11 '13 at 23:17
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+1 for doing something that I've never seen before: asking a gender-related question here in a constructive way! –  Andrew's a Unitato Apr 12 '13 at 14:07
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7 Answers

up vote 44 down vote accepted

I've had people use he, him, and his in comments referring to me ("Kate made some good points in his answer" or "The OP says he tried that" when I'm the OP) and I usually do nothing about it at all. There are names out there that I can't map to genders (sure, aliases and made-up names, but even when people are using the names given to them by their parents, if they're from a different culture I may not know) and statistically, most posters here are male. I do correct it when I think it's relevant, or if I happen to be commenting anyway.

If I can edit it (an answer rather than a comment, and I have the rep on that site) I sometimes will. If it's a comment and I was going to comment anyway, I may include a "btw, it was her answer, not his" or "btw, I'm she, not he" but then again I may not. When it's a comment, I usually don't do anything.

I treat "mate" like "guy" as a gender neutral word. Australians have most definitely called me it when they know my gender. So I wouldn't worry about that one. [To be clear, I mean that entirely literally. That is one I wouldn't worry about. I know there's an idiom that starts "I wouldn't X" that means "don't X" - I'm not telling anyone that. People react to things the way they react to things, and I wouldn't say anyone was wrong to feel odd being called a "wrong" name or pronoun.]

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Actually, in some languages (like Chinese iirc) they don't have a gender difference. There is only one word for person, so everyone to them is a "he, him" etc. That could be a language barrier. –  ɥʇǝS Apr 11 '13 at 21:42
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I just use "OP" and "they". –  Cole Johnson Apr 12 '13 at 0:36
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Me! I'm a good example of this -- I've walked into more than one interview and had the interviewer later mention that they had assumed I was a dude until meeting me. My name is rather obviously female in the context of its culture of origin. To Westerners, it (apparently) is assumed to be a masculine name. –  Aarthi Apr 12 '13 at 19:33
    
@Aarthi - That's interesting, I would have guessed female without looking at your user icon, but I wouldn't have been sure, so wouldn't have assumed either way. In general I find it easier to assume a gender neutral stance on the internet, since even if someone is presenting themselves as one gender it doesn't mean that's who they are. –  Mark Booth Apr 13 '13 at 14:26
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Kate, one other thing to note is that with a name like yours there are a number of intersecting cultural conventions, such as Family name being first or last depending on culture and whether a stranger is called by first or last name. As such, it is possible that the commenter assumed that Kate was your family name, thus Gregory must be your given name, hence assuming you are male. The Internet really is a melting pot of cultures, so I think the maxim of "be liberal in what you accept and strict in what you send" works well at so many levels. –  Mark Booth Apr 13 '13 at 14:34
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@Aarthi Who said "dude" was for guys only :P (I've heard many girls call each other that.. could be a locality difference). –  ɥʇǝS Apr 16 '13 at 17:51
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FTR, I reckon that whole trailing parenthetical could be avoided by injecting "personally" before "I wouldn't worry" ;) –  Lightness Races in Orbit Apr 17 '13 at 21:08
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"Mate" is also used as a Colloquialism to mean "friend" "buddy", "coworker" etc.

Of course, it might not have been used in this way for you, but without context I'd say it was just a friendly informal way of saying "buddy".

Dictionary.com says "mate" can mean

An associate; fellow worker; comrade; partner (often used in combination): classmate; roommate.

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"Comrade" would be a good gender-neutral way to address fellow users on the SE network. –  Monolo Apr 11 '13 at 21:35
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I agree. As an added bonus, it would tend to calm all of those annoying comparisons to the USSR. –  Shog9 Apr 11 '13 at 21:35
    
@Shog9 Or exacerbate them. –  Asad Apr 11 '13 at 21:44
    
Right. I'm not saying something else wouldn't have been better, just that I think that this is the way it was meant. –  ɥʇǝS Apr 11 '13 at 21:47
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@Monolo I dare you to try that on Politics.SE ;) –  Yannis Apr 11 '13 at 22:16
    
@Yannis at Politics, they should call each other "Parteigenosse" –  gnat Apr 12 '13 at 6:25
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Ignore it completely

In the big scheme of things I think that the "focus on the content and not the user" mindset needs to come into play here. It really doesn't matter if the OP/commenter/answerer/flagger/spammer/editor/voter calls you he, she or it, the thing that matters is what they are saying.

I've been called "dear" on numerous occasions around the network. This is not something that me, as a native English speaker, would expect to hear in a (somewhat) formal interaction. However, the correct approach is to simply ignore this (perceived) error. Remember that Stack Overflow (and the internet at large) is filled with many many many people that do not share the same culture or language. Things get lost in translation. Google translate gets lost in translation...

In some languages, the masculine plural form of a noun is also sometimes used as a non-specific gender. In Hebrew, for example, when talking (in the second person) about a group of people,

  • a group of males will have one form of noun - אתם
  • a group of females will have one form of noun - אתן
  • a group of mixed gender will be referred to using the same form as a group of males - אתם

Taking into consideration these types of differences, I really think things like this should be skimmed over allowing you to concentrate on exactly what is being said and not necessarily how they are saying it.

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Thanks, dear. ;) No, really, I do appreciate your comments. –  Melanie Apr 11 '13 at 22:12
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It's very important for communities like SO to be mindful of the fact that not all techies are men. English is one of many languages in the unfortunate position that gender neutrality does not come automatically in speech. –  djechlin Apr 11 '13 at 22:13
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@dje - how do you suggest we be mindful of every single culture that visits the site? At the end of the day (in my examples), no insult was insinuated, it's simply a mis-communication - and it doesn't at all affect content of the question/answer. Therefore it should be ignored as anything not related to the issue is just noise... –  Lix Apr 11 '13 at 22:17
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@djechlin All the more reason to ignore it! Most of the time the user isn't trying to be rude, they just don't know better. –  ɥʇǝS Apr 11 '13 at 22:18
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@Seth per my answer it's very often possibly to discreetly and germanely suggest they use gender-neutral language, which is consistent with SO's culture of education. –  djechlin Apr 11 '13 at 22:26
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@Lix I didn't say every culture. "Men" and "women" are two major groups worth being mindful of. Certainly in America and to varying (sometimes greater) extents in other countries there is a gender gap in technology that is exacerbated by community culture, and it is important SO be on the right side of this. Yes, I am suggesting that gendered pronouns are a not insignificant exacerbating force, but if this strikes you as too trivial I don't expect to change any minds in these here comments. –  djechlin Apr 11 '13 at 22:28
    
@djechlin That doesn't matter. If I come across it in an answer or question I will change it as a matter of correcting grammar, but I don't think it's a big deal and should be ignored on the more general side of things. –  ɥʇǝS Apr 11 '13 at 22:28
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@Seth Yes, that's consistent with what I'm saying - in cases of gendered pronouns polite, discreet corrections are a proper response. This is, literally, not ignoring it, and I'm not suggesting calling the PC police more dramatically is a proper response. (See: so-called "Donglegate.") –  djechlin Apr 11 '13 at 22:31
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@dje - with regard to the "greater good", I think that it is important to take a stand against stereotypes. I myself have several female programmers in my professional and personal life so I could be the first to say that the stereotype of males in the IT industry is unjust at the very least. As far as the site goes, again, with the focus being on the content, these issues are really irrelevant. –  Lix Apr 11 '13 at 22:33
    
Posts can be edited, but comments can't, so we'll be stuck with this issue for now, but unless there is some open sexism that should be flagged, mistakes stemming from cultural or language differences simply can not be remedied with our current toolbox. –  Lix Apr 11 '13 at 22:34
    
At the risk of veering further off topic, I will say one of the values of SE is developing good communication skills, i.e. the "how," in all our users, see e.g. Jeff's post here.. You could argue that gendering ambiguous users distracts from content, so correcting users when consistent with our toolbox is consistent with improving content. I agree comments are murky - the one time this has come up for me I corrected in reply but on another day might have just ignored. –  djechlin Apr 11 '13 at 22:40
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Hopefully lastly I will say that now that I reflect on your answer differently, you are kind of saying that the user who uses a gendered word may be coming from an ESL culture in which the user's primary language treats gender differently. While we're not here to teach people English IMO I would find that change worth correcting in a post, but yes it behooves the reader to bear in mind the user may have a legitimate reason to "not know any better." –  djechlin Apr 11 '13 at 22:41
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English uses the male pronoun to refer to both sexes when not in conflict with the context. –  Lance Roberts Apr 11 '13 at 22:51
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@LanceRoberts ...but this is nearly fully accepted as outdated and mildly sexist. See, e.g., any style guide. –  djechlin Apr 11 '13 at 23:02
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To back up Kate Gregory's point about Australians, I live in Australia and we use 'mate' for everyone. Men, women, kids, cops, strangers, bosses, parents, animals (no joke), etc.

Traditionally it was more of a male term but these days that gender split is long gone with most people.

Its meaning is usually somewhere between friend/buddy and a comma/exclamation mark.

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Just ignore it if it bothers you.

First of all, "mate" is not male-specific.

Secondly, accidentally referring to you with a male-targeted greeting rather than a female-targeted greeting is not "sexism". Sexism is when you wilfully deny rights to, or consider inferior, a person based solely on their gender. This has nothing to do with that at all. Let's stop bandying that word around willy-nilly please.

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Sometimes I wish I could give an answer +10... –  ɥʇǝS Apr 17 '13 at 21:25
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Presuming "he" is a bigger issue but I think I've actually only seen that maybe twice in the last year on SO. In the case of a question or answer I'll edit it to be gender neutral, which insofar as edits are germane and tactful is a germane and tactful way to remind the OP of this consideration, and in the case of one comment I replied in comment and the original commenter addressed it. For the scale of the non-gender-neutral pronoun problem on SO this approach seems perfectly sufficient to keep the community aware (or PC, although I'm not sure calling this PC is PC? etc.)

As far as "mate" is concerned I think it happens in a context of an in my experience good track record on gender-awareness in SO, e.g., if the user who said it meant it in a gendered way, that user probably uses the word "he" presumptively, but this habit would have probably been corrected fairly quickly. So I wouldn't worry about it. I'm leery to suggest someone "not worry about" something as sensitive as gender sensitivity in technology, but at some point it's necessary to take a stance as a community member, so I'd like to hear more information from the OP or more evidence that "mate" is skewed.

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My thoughts on this topic in the past have considered whether the speaker, assuming his interlocutor to be male, is exhibiting subconscious biases that are partly responsible for the gender skew in the IT industry in the first place. I tend to take the view that speakers who use male-specific language can be (gently) re-educated, just in the same way help-vampires can be encouraged to write better questions.

I see this behaviour in questions frequently, and generally I try to edit it out; I see you guys a lot, with dudes and "mate" much less so. I'll digress from the consensus here and venture to say that, if these words are becoming less gender specific, they haven't achieved it entirely. From a British perspective, the use of "mate" to refer to a woman is fine from a speaker of either gender if he/she knows her well, but otherwise (for me at least) some gender specificity still lingers. On Stack Overflow, where discussion parcipants don't know each other, I think it sticks out like a huge sore thumb; after all, this is a professional resource site, not a chat room.

As someone else says here, I would balance this issue with a sensitivity to people whose first language is not English, and who may just be occasionally selecting a clumsy word.

What to do? Well, if it is persistent, you could try explaining the issue to the speaker, so long as it is clear they are not struggling with their English. Also, there are various guides on "how to ask technical questions" around the web, and I think it would be a positive step if they could touch on this. I've included it in mine already.

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I strongly disagree with some of the points in your technical guide. For instance, Downvoting answers on questions you have asked yourself can come across as ingratitude is not correct. –  Emrakul Apr 17 '13 at 22:45
    
@Knights: I'll happily hear any feedback you have to offer, and will be pleased to make edits. The issue you raise is connected to the broader topic of civility, which as you'll know is hotly contested around these parts. I don't share your certainty that my statement is categorically incorrect, but nevertheless will consider amending if you would amplify your views on it. (Happy to discuss here, but it may be a little O/T - perhaps via email or as a comment on my blog?) –  halfer Apr 17 '13 at 22:52
    
Sure! I'm a litle busy at the moment, so I can't go on chat, but I'll be available later. –  Emrakul Apr 17 '13 at 22:54
    
Sorry, I was quite busy. I'll send you an email at some point - though I may forget. If I do, feel free to nudge me! –  Emrakul Apr 18 '13 at 6:47
    
@Knights, ping :). If you are pressed for time, could you perhaps take just the above item (about downvoting on one's own question) and drop a comment on the article directly? This will offer to readers a second opinion, to which I'll respond from an anti-snark perspective - I am sure new Stackers would benefit from that discourse. –  halfer May 11 '13 at 16:20
    
Ah, sorry! I have indeed been busy. I still do plan to send you a response. I'll try to do that in the next few days. –  Emrakul May 11 '13 at 16:27
    
Thanks @Knights, no rush at all. Put it in your calendar for a lazy Sunday or something :). –  halfer May 11 '13 at 16:28
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