Did you know that research has found that countries that speak more gendered languages have less gender equality?
Although English may be less gendered than other languages, it’s still important to remember that our word choices reflect the world we live in. Increasingly, organizations are consciously working to create a more inclusive culture, and are focusing their efforts on inclusive language. Inclusive language, and gender neutral language in particular, are conscious efforts to confront biased thinking and create more equitable workplaces by choosing words that welcome human diversity.
What is Gendered Language?
Gendered language is present in approximately one quarter of the world’s languages. Gendered language can refer to either grammatical gender, or the way we use language to convey ideas that lead to biased assumptions about gender.
According to a recent article published by the BBC, global languages fall into three categories with respect to gender:
- Gendered languages like Spanish (with gendered nouns and pronouns).
- Genderless languages such as Mandarin (where both nouns and pronouns don’t have a gender).
- Natural gender languages like English (with gendered pronouns such as “he” or “she” and genderless nouns).
The author, Nayantara Dutta points out that “the gender structure of the language we’re speaking will have the effect of making us more or less aware of gender.” Gendered language in English is best understood as language that has a bias toward a particular sex or social gender. In English, this would include using gendered terms for professions or people, or to refer to a general group of people.
The Consequences of Gendered Language
The United Nations’ Principles of Gender-Sensitive Communication explains that imprecise word choices can be interpreted as discriminatory, demeaning, or biased, regardless of how they’re intended. Gendered language might not be intended to be hurtful, but it can have unintended consequences. Gendered language may:
- Assume that gender is binary and excludes gender-fluid or non-binary identities.
- Maintain gender inequality in traditionally male-dominated occupations, when gendered wording appears in job recruitment materials.
- Reinforce negative gender stereotypes.
- Hold a particular person to a higher standard than others, based on their gender.
- Undermine or discredit people’s confidence in a colleague of a particular gender.
- Diminish a person’s contributions by relegating them to “supporting” versus “leadership” roles.
- Widen the gender gap in educational attainment.
What do these consequences mean for enterprise content? Gendered and non-inclusive language undermine your efforts to create an inclusive workplace, which can directly affect employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention. It also means you won’t be attracting employees from diverse backgrounds, and you risk alienating your brand from a wider demographic of potential customers.
The solution isn’t just focusing your efforts on more gender neutral language within HR, or simply using more feminine-coded words in recruitment materials. Ideally, inclusive language should be an enterprise-wide initiative that covers all your content, both internal facing and customer content — from blog posts, to knowledge base articles, technical documentation, code, and legal information. So, what do we mean by inclusive, gender neutral language?
From Gendered Language to Inclusive Language
Inclusive language celebrates the diversity of humanity. It does so by avoiding certain expressions or words that might exclude, silence, or suppress particular groups of people. Using inclusive language offers respect, safety, and belonging to all people, regardless of their personal characteristics.
Are you ready to start removing unnecessary gendered language from your business content? Not only do we have an Acrolinx Inclusive Language Guide to get you started, but the APA Publication Manual has a great section on removing bias in your writing.
In general, it’s a great idea to:
- Avoid assuming the gender of the person you’re writing to, whether it’s in an email, Slack message, or invitation to participate in a job interview. When it comes to company content, you could choose to speak more inclusively to your customers. For example, Japan Airlines has retired the phrase “ladies and gentlemen,” and are opting for “hello everyone” and “all passengers” to be more inclusive.
- There’s a tendency when presenting information in binomials for the male version to come first, such as “men and women,” “brothers and sisters,” “boys and girls,” or “Mr and Mrs.”
- Avoid the consistent acknowledgment of men before women.
- Use gender neutral terms to describe family relationships: siblings, partners, spouses, parents, children.
- Use gender neutral pronouns.
- Describe only the relevant characteristics of a person. It’s not always necessary to include details about a person’s sexual orientation, disability, marital status, or socioeconomic status. For example, use “cleaner” instead of “cleaning lady.”
- If the content requires you to include information about certain characteristics, it’s actually more respectful to be more specific. For example if you’re writing about socioeconomic status or income ranges, it might be better to say “below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four” than use general labels such as “low income.”
- Avoid perpetuating negative gender stereotypes. For example “John and Sarah are both employed full-time, so he helps her with the housework.” Instead, try “John and Sarah both work full-time, so they share the housework.”
- Make singular pronouns and nouns plural. For example, instead of “An employee who works long hours overtime, may make mistakes in [his/her] work.” try “Employees who work long overtime hours, may make mistakes in their work.”
|Issue||How to address|
|Binomials||Avoid consistently putting men before women|
Use gender neutral terms for family and relationships
Use gender neutral pronouns
|People descriptions||Include only relevant characteristics of a person|
|Necessary people descriptions||More details are better than less|
|Gender stereotypes||Avoid perpetuating stereotypes associated with gender roles|
|Singular pronouns and nouns||Make them plural|
Inclusive Language for an Equitable Workforce
So why is a commitment to inclusive language so important? Well, it turns out that the languages we speak influence our societal constructs, and can even set a precedent for gender equality in our social systems. Languages with two or more sex-based noun classes are associated with a 0.75 year decrease in women getting an education and a 7.6 percent decline in them completing secondary school. And that’s relative to men in similar environments, in any given language-country group.
Gender neutral language, specifically, has the power to increase the diversity of our workforce, with more equitable outcomes for all genders. And it’s not only about women. Nonbinary individuals face disproportionately high rates of exclusionary or discriminatory incidents. In fact, 42 percent of non-binary employees suffer from negative experiences in the workplace.
These are powerful statistics that show it’s time to take inclusive language seriously — both in our business content and in the way we educate our children, so they can reach their full potential in future workplaces.
Acrolinx and Gender Neutral Language
Acrolinx is an AI powered software that (among many things!) also helps scale your inclusive language initiative across your organization — by providing educational guidance and reporting across your entire organization’s content. Gender neutral language is just one aspect of inclusive language that Acrolinx supports.
The Acrolinx Inclusive language feature checks your content for multiple aspects of non-inclusive language, and provides suggestions that make your content historically and culturally aware, gender neutral, and free from ableist language. Interested in learning more? Let’s talk.