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 choice in words reflects 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, in particular, gender neutral language is a conscious effort 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 gendered language to convey ideas that lead to biased assumptions about gender. 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 towards a particular sex or social gender. In English, this would include using gendered terms referring to professions or people, or to refer to a general group of people.|
According to a recent article published by the BBC, global languages fall into three categories with respect to gender:
- Gendered languages like Spanish (that has gendered nouns and pronouns).
- Genderless languages such as Mandarin (where nouns and pronouns don’t have a marked gender).
- Natural gender languages like English (with gendered pronouns and genderless nouns).
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 certain to a higher standard than others, based on their gender.
- Undermine or discredit people’s confidence in a colleague of a particular gender.
- Diminishes a person’s contributions by relegating them to “supporting” versus “leadership” roles.
- Gendered language in education is associated with a greater gender gap in educational attainment.
From Gendered Language to Inclusive Language
Don’t know where to start in removing unnecessary gendered language from your business content? No problem! 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 that be 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” instead opting for “hello everyone” and “all passengers” to be more inclusive.
- There’s a tendency when presenting information for the male version to come first in binomials such as ‘men and women’, ‘brothers and sisters’, ‘boys and girls’, or ‘Mr and Mrs’.
- Be aware you’re not consistently acknowledging men before women.
- English doesn’t have a gender neutral word for all family or relationship scenarios, but using “siblings”, “partner”, “spouses”, “parents” or “children” are good gender neutral substitutes.
- 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 womenUse gender neutral terms for family and relationshipsUse 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|
“They” as a singular non-binary pronoun
With greater attention on gender-neutral pronouns, using “they” as a singular pronoun is one commonly chosen pronoun for people whose gender identity isn’t represented by “he/him” or “she/her.” Language circles and content creators sometimes lament that the singular “they” pronoun feels awkward, and isn’t grammatically correct. But is that really true?
As it turns out, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the singular “they” back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf (Baron. D, 2018)
And you know what? It turns out that you probably use the singular “they” in your daily life. Take these examples:
- “Someone left their coffee cup on my desk, gross!”
- “I called a new dog walker today and booked Fluffball in for Thursday morning.” “Great. Did you also let them know how to unlock the key box?”
- “I heard we’re getting a new intern. Do you know when they start?”
You probably learned to avoid the singular “they” in school, because in the 18th century, grammarians said that English grammar should mirror Latin grammar — but that still doesn’t mean the singular “they” pronoun is technically wrong today.
Gender neutral pronouns are inclusive because they challenge and outdated practice that refers to people or job roles using gender-specific pronouns or defaulting to a generic masculine. Even if you’re uncomfortable with using the singular “they” pronoun, it’s worth acknowledging that the discomfort of having to adapt to the evolution of language is still a lot more comfortable than having an identity that society erases or excludes from language. The good news is that you don’t need to understand non-binary people in order to respect them by using inclusive language!
For ideas on how other languages deal with gender neutral pronouns, this blog by the company Babbel is a great introduction.
Inclusive Language for an Equitable Workforce
Gender neutral language 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.
It turns out that the languages we speak can and do influence societal constructs, and can even set the precedent for gender equality in our social systems. Languages that have two or more sex-based noun classes, are associated with a 0.75 year decrease in educational attainment and a 7.6 percentage point decline in the secondary school completion rate among women in any given language-country group relative to men in a similar environment. This statistic shows that it’s time we take gender neutral seriously, both in our business content, and the way we educate our children so that they can fulfill their potential in future workplace environments.
Acrolinx and Gender Neutral Language
Inclusive language demonstrates awareness of the vast diversity of people in the world. Using inclusive language offers respect, safety, and belonging to all people, regardless of their personal characteristics.
Acrolinx 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.