This morning in hiring committee, we ran across a bunch of candidates with gender-ambiguous names. Think along the lines of "Jo", "Pat", "Shen".
One of the referrals was written by a Googler whom I will call Joshua. It was written in this manner: "I am referring Pat. They're a very strong software engineer. My experience with their code has been positive."
"Is Joshua not sure whether Pat is a man or woman?" I asked.
"No, that's just the way he writes," said Ann Mei.
I told the story of how in high school, I had a friend for months whose gender I was not certain about. Every time I tell this story, people are incredulous. "How can you not tell?" they would say.
But it was true. In my last 2 years of high school, I ate lunch every day with the same crowd of chinese students, mostly from Hong Kong. One of them (let's call this person Z) was slightly chubby, and the weight distribution made it impossible to determine whether there were breasts or not.
In chinese, the word for "he" and "she" sound the same, which was bad because other people's references to Z did not provide hints, but also good in that I could mask my own lack of knowledge.
When this happens, at first you think that you'll observe for a couple days and you'll figure it out, so you don't say anything. Then after 5 months, you really can't say, "Hey Z, you know how we've been eating lunch every day together, and we've hung out and gone to each other's houses? Well, funny question for you. Are you a guy or a girl?"
Eventually I finally broached the subject with my other friends. Another student, who was clearly a girl, said, "He's a guy. He told me this long story of liking a girl in junior high, and how she had great hair, etc." Later at lunch, one of the guys said, "I can tell my secrets to Z but not to you, because we're both guys!"
But then I found out that Z's English name was Kara. And Z told me a long story about having a big crush on a guy, and showed me pictures of the guy.
This was very confusing.
I think Z is a girl, but to this day I am only 99% sure.