Gender-inclusivity in language: Why it matters and how to use gender-neutral words

'Freedom to play:' Gender neutrality in children's toys campaign, by the Madrid City Council By Diario de Madrid - Diario de Madrid - ‘Libertad para jugar’, la campaña municipal a favor de los juguetes no sexistas, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76637978


Much to my chagrin, my nearly five-year-old son came back from school the other day and declared that all doctors were men and all nurses, women. Disturbed by my child’s blatant discrimination of roles, and also sure of the fact that I have never allowed such stereotypes to come into conversations, I gently asked him why he thought so. My child replied that while he was being taught about community helpers in their school, the teacher kept using the pronoun ‘he’ for doctors. For an impressionable, young child, what the teacher said was the be-all and end-all. While I initially got miffed at the teacher, I realised that it was not her fault. We are so conditioned to using gendered terms for specific roles, that we do not even put a thought on the kind of stereotypes we may be enforcing.

The incident is a clear example of why language should be made more gender-neutral. Not only is it disrespectful to automatically assume a role or person as being of a specific gender, today, gender is increasingly becoming non-binary. A person’s sex does not have to determine their gender, as there are a lot of people who prefer to associate themselves as being gender fluid, or adapting another gender. Further, with gender playing a more prominent role today, conversations around gender rights, LGBTQ+ community rights and gender neutrality, are also gaining traction.

Businesses and cities show the way forward

Berkley recently adopted an ordinance whereby all gendered words would be removed from the city’s codes and replaced by gender-neutral ones. Hence, man holes would be maintanenceholes, while manpower will be human power and ombudsman will be ‘investigating official’. This is to remove the majorly masculine words from the city codes to bring in inclusivity.

While Berkeley is a frontrunner amongst cities when it comes to adapting gender-neutral terminology, a number of businesses have also started catering their brands to a more gender-fluid market. On the one hand are brands such as the British supermarket chain Morrisons which faced major backlash after it started selling ‘sexist’ t-shirts with wordings such as “Little man, big ideas,” for boys and “Little girl, big smiles,” for girls. On the other, are brands such as Zara which has launched their gender-fluid collection, called ‘Un-gender.’ Some online retailers are also marketing their toys and children products in a more gender inclusive manner, by using the term ‘children’ or ‘kids’ instead of boys or girls.

The Merriam-Webster has been adding gender-neutral terms such as Mx, to replace the traditional Mr./Ms./Mrs. title, and ‘gender-queer’ to its list. In 2017, the Associated Press also updated its stylebook to embrace the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun to replace he/she. The guide also specified the difference between gender and sex, whereby it said that while sex is biological in nature, gender refers to the person’s social identity.

A gendered language

Unlike Hindi and many European languages such as French, Portuguese or German, English does not have a grammatical gender, whereby every noun has a gender, regardless of whether it is living or not. It existed in Old English, but fell out of use as the language evolved, to be largely replaced by a masculine form, whereby cases such as certain professions, or groups of people, become male, by default. Hence, policemen, fireman or businessmen are the commonly used termed, even if there are women in the fields too.

Author Allyson Jule addresses this in her book, ‘A beginners guide to language and gender,’ where she notes that such perceptions arise due to the ‘historical patriarchal hierarchy that has existed between men and women, where one (man) is considered the norm, and the other (woman) is marked as other – as something quite different from the norm'’

Gender neutral words you can adopt:

As the need for equality amongst gender arises, what we can do is make sure that the terminology we use is not gender biased. Here is how you can adapt a more gender inclusive language, and replace gender-specific words in everyday language with gender-neutral ones:

Pronouns: Till recently, ‘he’ was often the preferred pronoun to use while speaking about an unknown person.

For example, For someone to be successful, he has to work hard.

Here, the automatic assumption is that the successful person is a man.

The ‘he’ was then replaced by ‘he/she’, to show that the person could be of either gender. But this tends to make a sentence tedious, and also makes gender binary.

A more commonly used pronoun today is ‘they/them’ which is an acceptable way of addressing a single, gender-neutral person.

‘Xe’, ‘xir’ ‘xem’ ‘xeir’, ‘ze’, ‘zim,’ ‘zer’, ‘zirs’ and ‘zirself,’ though much less frequently used, are also considered as correct ways of addressing people who do not conform to any specific gender and who do not prefer to use the generic ‘they’.

For example, you can say, ‘ze went to the library to research on the subject.’

Professions: Professions and roles often fall prey to gender stereotyping. Here are some gender-inclusive terms you can use:

Stewardess: flight attendant

Anchorman/anchor woman: anchor

Business woman/businessman: businessperson

Chairman/chairwoman: chairperson

Headmaster: principal

Spokesman/spokeswoman: spokesperson

Male nurse: nurse

Generic words:

Masterpiece: great work of art

Mother tongue: native language/first language

Ladies/guys: folks/friends

Father/mother: parents

Husband/wife: spouse