Gender neutrality in writing: he, she or they

What is gender neutrality?

Gender neutrality, broadly speaking, refers to practices that do not make a distinction between gender roles. The reason underlying this is to prevent potential discrimination or possibly unintentional exclusion. We are all familiar with traditional social conventions about how women behave or what is expected of men, for example. Gender neutrality seeks to ensure that people are not treated differently because of assumptions that could be made about their gender.

Why is gender neutrality important in writing?

Impartiality

Gender neutrality in writing means one does not refer directly to either sex but rather to people in general. Language can reflect and shape what we understand about gender. It can be used to categorise or order information – including beliefs and ideas about male and female. Language can be a way of perpetuating stereotypes and reinforcing bias and discrimination. Gender neutral writing removes potential for reinforcing positive or negative associations with gender-related issues.

Inclusivity

If the content of your writing is targeted at or refers to all people, the language used should do the same (firefighter rather than fireman). Gender neutrality in writing is inclusive and does not lead the reader to make assumptions. It reflects reality because it allows the possibility for all topics and activities to relate to both men and women, rather than suggesting a bias towards one gender and reinforcing stereotypes. In addition, it includes reference to all people, many of whom do not necessarily identify specifically with male or female as a gender.

Empowerment and change

Times change just as language does. Studies have shown that gender-neutral language increases the number of applications for jobs traditionally identified as belonging to one gender, for example. It undoes age-old stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination while at the same time educating others and expanding their world views. Gender-neutral language affords everyone equal opportunity.

What are the conventions for gender neutrality?

In the English language, we differentiate between feminine and masculine only in the use of single pronouns (he and she). Gender neutrality in English writing is a far easier task than in many other languages across the world (which assign a gender to all nouns, verbs and adjectives). So let’s get on with it and make use of the following conventions:

Gender-neutral pronouns

Use ‘they’ as a single or plural pronoun in place of ‘he’ or ‘she’. The word ‘they’ has been used as a single pronoun as far back as Shakespeare and Jane Austen – it is not clumsy or confusing but has, in fact, stood the test of time. (I won’t ramble on here about male dominance in language (also), but essentially it’s about undoing the tendency to default to ‘he’ and ‘him’ when unsure; just use ‘they’ and ‘them’.)

Words or phrases should be gender neutral

It’s important to be sensitive to words or phrases that, traditionally, have deferred or referred to one gender only and perpetuated beliefs about jobs, tasks, or characteristics specific to the idea of man or woman. Policeman, male nurse, stewardess, female executive, for example, should rather be police officer, nurse, steward and executive. Neutrality in this instance allows all people to consider all possibilities, rather than perpetuating notions of people being suited to specific jobs or duties because of their gender identification, or deliberately casting them as contrary to an old gender norm.

Titles

Men have always been a ‘Mr’ but women were obliged to choose a ‘Miss’ if single or a ‘Mrs’ denoting married (to a man – there’s that theme again). This is no longer appropriate or relevant and our status and identities have shifted. If such a title must be used and the individual has not stated their preference, let it be Ms.

Final comment:

“We must raise both the ceiling and the floor.”

This was said by a feminist advocating gender equality (Sheryl Sandberg). Language is a way to do this and we should be committed to its purpose in achieving this – for all people, regardless of gender but also because of it.

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