Paddy Gower Has Issues: Karen O'Leary investigates pressing issue of insect pronouns

  • 15/11/2023

It's Karen O'Leary's final community investigation and she's taking on her most ambitious task yet: can she change the way we speak? 

Stuart from Hawke's Bay has presented Karen with a massive issue that is yet also tiny. 

"The male insect world has been much maligned," Stuart tells Karen, explaining how bugs are automatically referred to by male pronouns in conversation. 

Stuart adds this is especially common when it is a particularly pesky or disgusting bug: "Kill him, squash him, spray him!" 

These assumptions are made without people actually knowing the gender of the bug they are talking about. 

"It's very hard to sex a cricket on the fly," explains Stuart. 

"I've never tried it," replies Karen, who is ready to help Stuart. "We need to do better by bugs - we need to educate the public and we need to make a difference." 

Karen heads to Auckland Zoo to meet ectothermologist Don McFarlane, to learn if we can tell the difference between male and female insects by simply looking at them.  

Don is an expert in insects and describes how the variations between genders are often more significant than they are in humans. 

"The male and female genitalia, in the human form, is really rather different from each other... If you put the same focus on the male and female insect... then you will see, and some of it is internal, that there are huge differences in the reproductive structures... that are even more different than humans." 

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Don doesn't just use his words; he also introduces Karen to some of their largest insects so she can see the difference for herself. He brings her to see some stick insects to show how much larger the female is, using a trowel-like structure for reproduction. 

Now Karen has gotten up close and very personal with the bugs, her next stop is Auckland University to meet Professor of Linguistics Dr Jason Brown. She asks him the big question: why do we always think bugs are boys? 

"There's a bias in language that 'people equals male'," he explains, adding: "Researchers have shown that also includes animals, so 'animal equals male' - so we default to 'he'." 

Together Karen and Dr Jason decide the way to change language is to lead by example. This gives Karen an idea to write her own children's book that provides a positive example to rangatahi around Aotearoa. 

After a gruelling, 12-minute creative process her book is finished and, with the help of incredible illustrations from Cat Atkinson, she brings it to a Wellington early childhood centre to see what actual children think of it. 

In 'Not All Bugs Are Boys', Karen meets a praying mantis and tries to set "him" free outside, only for that praying mantis to reveal "she" is actually called Anne. Anne introduces Karen to a variety of insects, showing how we shouldn't assume the gender of someone, or something, when we aren't sure. 

"Not all bugs are boys, that's true - if I need to know I will ask you," ends the book. While some of the kids aren't quite clear on the message, it's a hit. 

'Not All Bugs Are Boys' is now available and all proceeds from the sale go to Dementia NZ. 

If you have an issue you would like Karen to tackle, email her at

Patrick Gower hosts Paddy Gower Has Issues - watch it on Three or ThreeNow.