I was a little perplexed when this showed up as one of my facebook updates:
Deb Clark wants to put your birthday on his calender [- Accept -] 4 hours ago
I couldn't figure out who this man could possibly be. I really didn't think I knew a man named Deb. So I clicked on the name, and up popped a picture of Deb, a lady who happens to be my first cousin once removed. Now, I remember how awkward it was when facebook first started trying to add in pronouns for people who hadn't specified a gender or sex. "John is enjoying its classes," and "Carly is excited about its birthday" are problematic for obvious reason. But I thought we'd progressed past assuming that male pronouns are gender neutral.
I'm doing some research for a paper on gender in the classroom, and one very interesting thing I encountered was a discussion of some studies that had been done with terms that don't mention gender at all, and terms that were based in masculine words but that were argued to have historically been gender-neutral. How the study worked, is they gave half the subjects gender-free terms such as ancient people, or humanity and asked them to draw a picture. They then asked the other half to draw a picture of supposedly gender neutral terms like ancient man, and mankind. The findings? The terms that were linked to men but that were supposed to be gender neutral in fact drastically increased the number of subjects who drew male-only drawings.
So the next time you think gender-free pronouns, or more inclusive pronouns (such as "he or she," "s/he" or "ze") are pointless, remember the drawings.