In this scientific paper published in 2007, the authors wrote (page 684):

Note: you don't have to understand the technical part of the following paragraph to understand my question.

The set of efficient portfolios is analogous to the set of non-dominated portfolios in that a rational DM would not choose a portfolio outside the efficient set. If she were to do so, there would exist an efficient portfolio which yields a higher overall value for all feasible weights and scores, and costs less no matter what the project costs are within their intervals.

Here "DM" refers to "Decision Maker" which could be either a man or a woman, absolutely nothing could make us say it's a woman in the article. Indeed, Decision Maker refers to all decision-makers in general, a manager in a company for instance.

I don't think it's an error because the authors wrote it twice, the second time is page 686 section 3.4. So why did they choose to use "she" instead of "he" and is it common and good practice? Should I do the same?

  • This article is not free, but you can find it on sci-hub. Please remove this comment if mentions to sci-hub are not allowed. Note : having acces to the article is not necessary to understand and answer my question in my opinion.
    – JKHA
    Apr 24, 2019 at 13:15

1 Answer 1


Many writers beginning in the 1970s wanted to avoid gendered language.

In particular many academic writers, male as well as female, wanted to break the older habit of always using "he" to mean "he or she", and came up with different approaches.

You will find:

  • Some writers alternate between "he" and "she" (some readers find this confusing)
  • Some writers always use "s/he", "she/he" or "she or he" (some readers find this ugly)
  • Some writers use "he" (some readers find this sexist)
  • Some writers use "she" (some readers find this confusing, some find it mannered)
  • Some writers use plural-as-singular-of-indeterminate-gender "they" (some readers find this confusing)
  • Some writers use second-person ("... a rational DM ... If you were ...", some readers find this too informal)
  • Some writers always have plural examples ("... rational DMs .... If they were ...", some readers find this dull)
  • Some writers give the abstract people names mnemonic of their roles ("Alice and Bob" in cryptography, who then are naturally she and he. Some readers find this infantile)
  • Some writers never use pronouns (".... a rational DM ... If that DM were ...", some readers find this repetitive)
  • Some writers give the abstract people letters ("a rational DM X ... if X were ...", some readers find this legalistic or abstract)

All of these approaches have their merits and are widely seen. Each one also has vocal critics.

This and many related issues are covered very well in The Nonsexist Word Finder: A Dictionary of Gender-Free Usage, Rosalie Maggio, Beacon Press (1989). ISBN 0807060011.

Should you do the same?

First: it's worth noting that gender-mismatch errors are extremely confusing to native English speakers. The very common mistranslation of French "Un homme et sa mère" as "A man and her* mother" is confusing and the listener may well ask "whose mother?". Number-mismatch is much less confusing: "Apple is a big company. They are always seeking profit.", here "they" clearly refers to the "[The people of] Apple".

The following are my opinions, and you will certainly get other advice.

It depends entirely on your audience. I would suggest one of the easiest ways for a non-native writer, in technical or scientific writing, to avoid any unintended bias is to use "she/he" and "her/his" (equally the other way "he/she".) No one will give it a second glance or find it confusing, it's not dated, it's not in any way niche, and it's not sexist.

In spoken English (and websites), always-second-person is probably the most common. People under about 50 are also very likely to use singular-they. However, in this particular field (economics/operational research) precision about number looks important (an individual's actions with or against the herd, for example) so I'd suggest you might want to avoid it.

  • 2
    I agree that alternating she and he would be confusing (especially if more then one person is being referred to). But I can't see why anyone would find consistent use of either she or they as a singular pronoun confusing. These are both standard usages with long standing. I assume the deliberate choice of she is to subvert the expectation (in many people) that a "decision maker" will be male. After the initial "shock" there should be no confusion. Personally, I would always use the standard singular they. Apr 24, 2019 at 15:20
  • The original poster found "she" confusing enough to ask here, and certainly other non-native speakers have asked me about it. I completely agree it's not confusing once you understand the idiom. Re "standard usages": feminists are enraged by "he", classicists are enraged by "she", and traditionalists are enraged by "they" (certainly not common, never mind standard, before the 1980s). Butt & Benjamin A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish changed away from translating fuma occasional as "she smokes" to "(s)he smokes" in its 4th ed because "some readers found it very confusing".
    – jonathanjo
    Apr 24, 2019 at 15:35
  • 3
    Singular they predates singular you, and no one complains about the latter. Apr 24, 2019 at 15:35
  • 1
    My answer was intended to give a neutral point of view of different approaches to the question, with some indication of who finds each approach undesirable. Personally, I use singular they a lot too, but I wouldn't write it in a scientific journal, where I would tend towards we in a humanities and plural they in sciences. My suggestion about using she/he is because it's easy to do perfectly for non-native speakers.
    – jonathanjo
    Apr 24, 2019 at 15:39
  • Both your third-last and final paragraphs are out of place. They interrupt an otherwise unbiased discussion with personal opinion. Apr 25, 2019 at 19:27

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