Male or Female?

Teaching an international student body in two online science courses, I often don’t know the gender of some of my students. At first this was disconcerting. How could I know how to respond to a posting if I didn’t know whether it came from a man or a woman?

Girl or Boy?

I’ve had students with first names such as Xjigme, Myint-San, Widya, Lieu, and many more that are unpronounceable and unidentifiable as to gender. I can only do so much to encourage them to post a photo. In the past, I’d study the postings to see if he or she would refer to a wife or husband. But that’s no longer a clue.

Many “American” names are gender-neutral also. Was the Sean I had last term a girl, like the actress Sean Young, or a guy, like the actor Sean Penn? How about Lee? Female Lee Harris or male Lee Marvin? What about Alex? Casey? And fuggedabout Chris and Dana.

Every year that I’ve taught these classes in cyberspace, there’s at least one student whose gender I never learn, not even as I assign the final grade.

The Implorer by Camille Claudel, sculptor (1856–1943)

I had my own name trauma when I was 5 or 6. My family was on a trip up by the East Coast Canadian border. Some French-ish guy named Camille had the nerve to tease me by claiming I had a man’s name. Wah! He ignored my cries and pointed out Camille Henry, Camille Saint-Saens, Camille Pissaro, Camille Corot. Too bad I wasn’t smart enough to match him with Camille Claudel, Camille Paglia, Camille Guaty, or Greta Garbo (OK, that was a fictional role, but still.)

Back to my class rosters, eventually, I realized that it shouldn’t matter whether I’m reading the postings or the quiz answers supplied by a man or a woman. How does it help to know the gender perspective of a person if the issue is nuclear power or gene therapy or bitcoins or the Higgs boson?

Maybe it doesn’t.


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One Response to “Male or Female?”

  1. Mary Rhodes says:

    In my work at a large company with international offices, I encounter the same issue with unfamiliar names and androgynous names. It’s generally fine when asking or responding to a technical question. It’s the 3rd person references that get me like. “The best person to ask about this is Rungta, who works on X. He/She always answers emails quickly and thoroughly.” You can fudge a bit in person, but in email you’re stuck.