Verity Burns often sells her old tech online. When she is done with her phones, headphones, or laptops, she will place them on eBay in the hopes of making some extra cash. As a 32-year-old technology journalist, Burns can knowledgeably answer any questions that potential buyers might have. Yet though she doesn’t often make mistakes, those messaging her frequently do.
“If I’m ever selling tech there and get a question about it, the buyer almost always assumes I’m male… addressing me as mate, geez, bruv,” she says. Last year, when a man came to collect a purchase from her home, he was taken aback by Burns’ appearance. “He looked very confused when I opened the door,” she says. “He even said ‘Oh I thought you were a guy!’.”
“There are No Girls on the Internet” was one of the web’s first adages. During the Nineties, male gamers would often pose as women for both attention and assistance in Multi-User Dungeon games (MUDs). Nowadays, most internet users are aware that gender ratios online reflect those in real life, and the saying exists on as a meme, not a myth.
Yet although consciously most of us know that there are plenty of women online, subconsciously, something else seems to be at work.
“I’m always assumed [to be] male on Reddit,” says Rosie Jones, a 22-year-old sommelier. A Redditor for six years, Jones has found that others on the site automatically assume she is male, particularly on subreddits – forums dedicated to specific topics – for chefs.
In this, Jones is not alone. Reddit commenters are frequently assumed to be male on the site, so much so that the phrase “OP [original poster] is a she” has become a common correction for any mistakes. A site search for “OP is a she” reveals thousands of these comments – which is perhaps fair enough, considering Reddit was originally a male-dominated site. Yet according to Reddit’s own advertising kit, women now make up 47 per cent of the site.
So ubiquitous is the assumption that Reddit users are male that it happens even when they have the word “lady” or “sister” in their username – and when they clearly mention that they are women. When females take to the site to talk about their boyfriends or relationships with men, it is assumed they are simply gay men. Redditors themselves are aware of this problem. On a subreddit for DIY, one comment, with 141 upvotes, says: “I’ve been trying to catch and correct myself whenever I assume every Reddit poster is a male.”
There is no explicit harm in this behaviour. Commenters are rarely offended when others assume they are male, and as a Redditor, Jones herself assumes other users are men. “It doesn’t really bother me,” she says. Nonetheless, this behaviour is symptomatic of a wider trend on the internet. When users don’t have profile pictures or usernames that identify them as female, they are often automatically assumed to be men. As one Redditor put it a few years ago: “On the internet, everyone is a male.”
“For years I have been on online forums with just random usernames and it’s almost always assumed I am male,” says Samantha, a 23-year-old communications assistant who posts on music and politics sites. For work, Samantha uses “Sam” – not her full name – in her email address, and says she gets “better responses” when people assume she is a man.
When I’m tweeting behind a business account and people assume I’m a man and respond to me as such Like how you know who you talking to?
— @$H.gif ò_ó (@KABOOMxPOW) April 19, 2017
“Pretty much every time I speak with people afterward, maybe in person or via phone, they go: ‘Oh, I didn’t realise you were a woman!’,” she says. When she first switched from using “Samantha” to “Sam” while she worked in recruiting, she found her emails got a “significantly higher” response rate and she was taken more seriously. “However if I contacted them through telephone they would dismiss me (even if I had already spoke to them via email) before realising who I was and saying they were shocked I was a woman.”
Natasha Daniels is a 25-year-old fashion editor who has experienced similar problems. When applying for internships after university, she found herself frequently rejected on the grounds she didn’t have enough experience. When her aunt advised her to change her email from “natasha.daniels” to “ndaniels”, she immediately got two interviews.
“It really shocked me as to be honest it was my first dalliance with sexism in the workplace,” she says. “Before that I’d only worked at Topshop!”
Neither Natasha nor Samantha deliberately identified themselves as male – but relied on internet users’ automatic assumption that they were speaking to men. “I’ve never really dug into why,” says Samantha, questioning why people online frequently assume she is a man. One Redditor echoes this. “Ohh is OP a “she”?,” they write, after the news emerges. “I have no idea why, but I pictured a dude this whole time.”
This Redditor might not know which subconscious biases are at work in his mind, but experts do. Feminists and sociologists have long noted that men are the default in society. Cartoon characters are assumed to be male until eyelashes are added, animals are often referred to as “he” or “him”, products are marked out with qualifiers so that there is “deodorant” and “women’s deodorant”, and women are often referred to as “female” doctors or basketball players, rather than simply doctors or basketball players.
“In linguistics ‘markedness’ refers to the fact that words have a base meaning and then extra meaning added on with linguistic marking – a little bit of language stuck on,” explains Deborah Tannen, a professor linguistics and author of You’re The Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.
An essay by Tannen, “There is No Unmarked Woman” explains how women are always marked linguistically. “Verbs are present tense (visit) unless marked for past (visited). Nouns are singular (cat) unless marked for plural (cats). And people are male (poet, actor) unless marked for female (poetess, actress)… The assumption that the unmarked form is male persists.”
On the internet, women are similarly marked. We look for stereotypical clues like kisses or emoji use to determine whether someone is a woman. Without these, the assumption is automatically that the writer is male.
Culturally and linguistically, we have therefore been trained to assume that things are male by default. As such, internet users cannot be blamed for inciting some terrible new sexist trend. Being mistaken for a man online is certainly not in the top 100 problems women face today, but the phenomenon is still worth scrutiny. It is an undercurrent of our patriarchal society, and one that no one should miss were it to go away.
Yet being mistaken for a man can, sometimes, have its benefits. Shockingly, male eBay users make more money than female ones, and mistaken identity has arguably helped Samantha and Natasha in their careers. A gender-neutral username is also a great way to avoid sexual harassment online (not, of course, that the onus should ever be women to avoid being harassed).
Between the ages of 19 and 25, now 30-year-old François used to play as a female character in the online role-playing game World of Warcraft. Despite being French and therefore linguistically appearing male on the game’s chat feature (for example, a French man would write “je suis fatigue” whereas a woman would write “je suis fatiguée”), François was frequently mistaken for a woman.
“They would be much kinder as long as they assumed I was a woman,” he says, explaining they would often help him with the game. “For some it was very clear that as soon as they realised I was a guy they’d stop interacting with me.”
Yet there were also downsides. François was frequently “hit on” by other players who assumed he was a woman, and players who thought this were much more interested in learning about where he lived and how old he was. On eBay, not only can appearing as a man boost your sales, appearing as woman can also lead to unwanted sexual attention.
The default male could arguably therefore help females attempting to avoid harassment online. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise and address the phenomenon, as it is the harrasers who need to change their behaviour, not women with feminine usernames or avatars. Many online are already trying to change or modify their behaviour. MaxpowerAU is a Redditor who, a few months ago, made a joke on the site which relied on him assuming the OP was male. Though he was aware he was being presumptous, he ultimately decided it was worth it to make the joke. Yet when the OP replied with “OP is a she”, he edited his post.
“I’m socially awkward generally and particularly uncomfortable in places I perceive as not for me,” he tells me over Reddit’s messaging service. “When I took my kid to a weekly toddler ‘Rhyme Time’ I was usually the only father in a sea of mothers. I’m disturbed by the idea that women feel like that a lot and (I imagine) especially online.”
As such, maxpowerAU thinks it is important to correct gender assumptions on Reddit, in order to make women feel more welcome. “I know when you’re already feeling out of place, any tiny thing can feel like proof that you’re not welcome,” he says.