Richard Smith: Journals, surgeons, and sexist language

richard_smith_2014Much to my amusement and countering the stereotype of surgeons, the Annals of Surgery has “following an uproar” retracted a paper that used only male pronouns to describe surgeons. It’s counter to the stereotype of surgeons because they still are overwhelming male and, in our imaginations if not reality, casually sexist. But there are an increasing number of female surgeons, and they presumably led the uproar (or is that supposition sexist?).

(Since writing that first paragraph I have by pure chance encountered the surgeon who started the uproar with her Tweet: Natalie Blencowe, a trainee surgeon in the Severn Deanery, who has with Jane Blazeby, professor of surgery in Bristol, written for The BMJ. They are about transforming surgical culture, and we briefly discussed the words used to describe assertive female surgeons: feisty, bossy, abrasive, outspoken.)

The offending article was a presidential address given in Polish, and the journal has a lame excuse that “the pronoun ‘his’ can include women in Polish.” That would, of course, have been the case in English until recently, and it still is for many English speakers.

I find the episode amusing because it allows us to calculate just how far behind the time surgeons are. The answer is 30 years. I say this because The BMJ introduced a policy of non-sexist or inclusive language in 1987. I was then an assistant editor. We already did our best when editing to avoid sexist language, but an editorial made it explicit policy and asked authors to avoid sexist language in the articles they submitted. Examples of sexist language from medical writing included in the editorial were not only sexist but absurd, inaccurate, and funny: “Development of the uterus in rats, guinea pigs, and men” and “Subjects were 16 boys and 16 girls. Each child was to place a car on his board…”

But The BMJ was not wholly successful in avoiding sexist language. A reader examined 469 BMJ articles for sex-biased language in 1992, when I was the editor, and found it in 35 (7%). Tim Usherwood, the author observed that 34 of the 35 examples of sex-biased language were androcentric. He wrote: Thus medical staffing issues were described as issues of medical “manpower.” The chairs of many committees were described as “chairmen,” even when women; and train drivers, doctors, surgeons, gastroenterologists, inventors, children, and chief executives were all alluded to with masculine pronouns. The average person was “the man in the street,” and women were presumably immune to environmental factors “harmful to man.”

Somebody should repeat the audit. As a starter, I read every word of three pages of the BMJ of 15 July and noted the use of “chair” instead of chairman, “workforce” rather than manpower, and the use of the plural “they” rather than the singular “he or she,” which avoids the problem English creates by not having something other than “he,” “she,” or it. One possible example of sex-biased language was “a spokesman said,” but perhaps the spokesman was a man; but as he or she is anonymous it might have been better to say spokesperson.

Then—by chance not design, I assure you—the three pages include a piece on sex with robots. The piece reports that “17% of 1002 adults questioned would be willing to go on a date with a robot, and that increased to 26% for a robot that looked like a human,” (creating an image in my mind of a person sitting in a bar chatting with a piece of machinery), but there is no assumption in the words of the piece that it is men who will have sex with robots; but all the examples—including a “man…[who] left his wife and family for…[a robot]—are of men, and the one picture shows a woman. Is that sexist? Should the article have included an example of a woman having sex with a picture of a male robot?

The challenge now, of course, when we have people not defined by just two genders, is not to assume that people are either men or women.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.

Competing interest: None declared.