The random NPCs from Traveller episode 11 (and earlier) got me to thinking. There were three groups, the N/PC party of four, the four criminals, and the six soldiers. In each group there was one woman, the rest being men. The party had been determined in advance by the same system (d6, 1-3=m, 4-6=f). My character's gender was not determined at random, but all her shipmates' were, and as luck would have it she replaced the sole female member of that group when she was hired as the temporary pilot. The gender imbalance of the Galatea's crew did strike me a bit odd at the time, but I sort of forgot about it as it was more interesting to find out (via the NPC Relationship Table) that the (vilani) Captain was schtupping the (solomani) engineer, who was scarcely half his age.
When I rolled for the genders of the criminals and the soldiers, I was again struck by the weird imbalance. At the time, I wrote in my game notes:
"Gender is indicated for the bad guys to make them slightly more than a collection of stats. I actually rolled 10d6 for all the NPCs in this scene (1-3 m, 4-6 f), and only 2 of those dice were 4 or higher (gaming flashback to the crappiest fireball ever cast)."
I've always liked the implicit assumption that Traveller's universe of the far future had gotten over biases based on gender and skin colouration, as summed up in the note at the end of the character generation section:
A NOTE ON GENDER AND RACE
Nowhere in these rules is a specific requirement established that any character (player or non-player) be of a specific gender or race. Any character is potentially of any race and of either sex.
-Traveller (Bk. 1 p.25, Starter Traveller Bk 1 p.17, Traveller Book p.30)
To be sure, the results I rolled were hardly outside the realm of possibility; sometimes random results just don't average out. What bothered me, though, was the fact that if I had merely presented the three groups without comment, it would have hardly seemed as if anything unusual had occurred. Perhaps it would even seem progressive of me to have included a woman in each of the groups.
The imbalance is so prevalent as to become background noise; if I had just seen the NPCs presented like that, or even with no women present, I might not have noticed, either. That's the most insidious part of the problem; we're so used to seeing it done that way we don't even find it remarkable. But if you swing the balance the other way, it stands out in an instant.
Groups of thugs and soldiers tend towards being all-male affairs. If there is a woman present, she's usually the only one, and never just one of the rank-and-file. She will usually be the smartest, sexiest, meanest &c one of the group, and the only one with different stats. If in a fantasy environment, she'll have the best armour. If there's an illustration, it will usually be plate mail with inexplicable décolleté.
The men under her command are almost never portrayed as if being commanded by such a woman is anything unusual (ok, they're a single stat block: but it seems like this is the implication). It's nice that there's no glass ceiling in Magicdale, but it does seem odd that no one else is following her example. She wasn't born a 6th level fighter. Why do the PCs never wander into a village to find such a personage at the beginning of her career?
This setup is something that's altogether too common in RPGs, even when they are ostensibly trying to be more egalitarian than other media. By only including women who are unusual in their level of attainment or 0-level peasants, it implies that, whilst women can be the equals of men, really only very few of them are.
There is always the argument that the gender roles in these worlds are based on medieval Europe (or wherever, but usually Europe), but if we can posit a 'medieval' world where pseudo-vikings team up with pseudo-hoplites to fight actual dragons, I think we can safely declare that argument invalid. Besides, it's not really the values of medieval europe that are the problem; it's the sad justification for the modern-day values being used in their place (this goes double for Game of Thrones).
Things are starting to change, but even so, it seems like the imbalance is still creeps in unconsciously even when it is consciouly addressed. Many adventures present groups of cannon fodder NPCs that just have a bunch of stats and are designated simply 'Bandits, 0-level human warriors' or the like, but just as often the text accompanying them makes bland references to 'the men'. By not specifying a gender, it re-enforces the default male stereotype unthinkingly. By implication, all other generic humans in the adventure will seem male unless it is specifically stated otherwise. Often the women primarily show up only as peasants ('20 farmers, human, m or f').
And there are also lots of adventures where the gender of generic stat-block NPCs isn't mentioned at all. I wonder what the implication is? Do we assume they're all male? That seems to be the default setting. I'd like to read it otherwise, but I'm afraid this is just attempting to look at it charitably.
P.S. For extra fun, re-read this essay but mentally substitute white/non-white person for male/female.
P.P.S. Yes, I realise I've written this whole thing with an absolute gender binary. Can anyone think of an example of a published RPG supplement that presents a human/humanoid culture without one? Monsters and aliens with 3+ biological sexes don't count. Das Schwarze Auge's elves are supposed to be all fairly androgynous, but I don't think they're exactly presented as being genderqueer.