by Linda Herzer,
Transformation Journeys Worldwide
If you want to understand the lens through which a person sees gender, listen for their use of gender-neutral language. Not using it reveals a great deal of unconscious gender bias. Since unconscious bias is something we’re all trying to mitigate, (its currently the topic of the second most popular course on LinkedIn) let’s follow the lead of the President of Argentina and of the US House of Representatives. President Alberto Fernández, when addressing citizens about the COVID-19 lockdown, appealed not only to Argentinos and Argentinas, but also to Argentines, “using a gender-neutral term that doesn’t exist in traditional Spanish grammar.” In Washington, the House recently introduced gender-neutral language in its new rules for congress.
What is gender-neutral language, and why does it matter to you and your organization?
The guidelines for using gender-neutral language created by the European Parliament state: Gender-neutral language is a generic term covering the use of non-sexist language, inclusive language or gender-fair language. The purpose of gender-neutral language is to avoid word choices which may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory or demeaning by implying that one sex or social gender is the norm. Using gender-fair and inclusive language also helps reduce gender stereotyping, promotes social change and contributes to achieving gender equality.
That’s a great definition which also addresses why we all need to care about this. Simply stated: because language matters.
FIRST REASON WHY GENDER-NEUTRAL LANGUAGE IS IMPORTANT: Your Language Includes or Excludes
When I was in seminary, back in the ‘80s, there was a big push towards using gender inclusive language. That was the time when people recognized that the word “man” did not feel inclusive to women, nor did it acknowledge and affirm our newly emerging lived experiences. A cultural shift occurred in language as we moved from naming things in exclusively male terms. Mailmen became mail carriers, stewardesses became flight attendants, clergy men became the clergy, chairmen became chair persons and mankind became humanity.
As a young, female seminarian, I was on the frontlines of this battle for gender inclusive language. Those of us engaged in the struggle recognized that language both reflects and shapes how we experience the world. As the European Parliament’s statement pointed out, the shift to gender inclusive language actually did promote social change and it did contribute to achieving greater gender equality… 40 years ago.
SECOND REASON WHY GENDER-NEUTRAL LANGUAGE IS IMPORTANT: Its Use Reflects Your Awareness of the World’s Expanded Understanding of Gender
Today there is a rapidly growing, global recognition that gender is no longer simply binary; that there are more than just two genders, more than just male and female. Non-binary persons also exist, along with gender fluid individuals and people who identify as bi-gender or agender. (For definitions, see the glossaries linked off our website’s Resources Page.) Likewise, intersex people are making the world aware that even sex is not binary, that some people have bodies that fall outside of a strictly female or male classification.
Evidence of this growing awareness is demonstrated by the 19 US States, and the District of Columbia, which, along with the expected M or F, now offer their residents an “X” gender marker option on their driver’s licenses. Globally, there are numerous countries which allow citizens a third gender option on their passports as well.
In the same way that gender inclusive language began being used in the ‘80s to foster equity for women, gender-neutral language is now emerging to promote equality for gender diverse people.
THIRD REASON WHY GENDER-NEUTRAL LANGUAGE IS IMPORTANT: It Demonstrates Your Commitment to Inclusion
From the European Parliament and the US House of Representatives to the National Council of Teachers of English, organizations throughout the world are introducing Gender-Neutral Language Guidelines as part of their best practices for creating inclusive cultures. In recognition of the gender diversity of its employees and customers, Air Canada has changed its scripted greetings. Now, instead of welcoming “ladies and gentlemen—mesdames et messieurs” flight attendants welcome “everyone—tout le monde.” Just last year Forbes ran an article on “How to Use Gender-Neutral Language, and Why It’s Important to Try.” Three years ago Teen Vogue was already instructing its young readers on “How to Use Gender-Neutral Words: And Why They’re Important.” Which brings us to our fourth reason.
FOURTH REASON WHY GENDER-NEUTRAL LANGUAGE IS IMPORTANT: It’s Vital for Attracting and Retaining Your Customers and Employees
No matter your industry—business, law, healthcare, religion, education, government, etc.—or your for profit or non-profit status, the people you hire and the customers you serve want to support, do business with, and be part of organizations where they know they and their loved ones will experience inclusion and belonging.
And more and more of the employees, students, patients, clients, customers or congregants that you are looking to attract and retain are gender diverse. A client with just 300 employees recently told us that while they have three gender diverse co-workers, they have at least six employees—that they know of—with trans or non-binary children or loved ones. A 2018 Pew Research Report showed that 12% of Baby Boomers personally knew someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and this was true for 16% of Gen Xers, 25% of Millennials and 35% of Gen Zs. And gender diversity is not just a US phenomenon. A 2018 survey of the United Kingdom’s LGBT community received responses from 6,918 citizens who are trans men or trans women and from an additional 7,459 citizens who are non-binary.
One of the quickest ways a person can tell if they and their loved ones will experience inclusion and belonging in your organization is by observing the language you use. Forms that offer only two gender options, and policies and presentations that reference parents as only mothers and fathers, children as only boys and girls, and employees as only men and women show a lack of awareness of and respect for non-binary, agender and intersex people.
Recommended Resource for Creating Gender-Neutral Language Guidelines for Your Organization
The APA’s Style Guide to Bias-Free Language has an excellent section on Gender which gives many examples of gender-neutral language (and words to avoid). The Guide also provides helpful explanations about why the recommended words are more inclusive. It is the perfect starting place for organization’s seeking to implement their own gender-neutral guidelines.
Remember: the language you use matters. It can include or exclude. Your organization’s language both reflects and shapes its viability and sustainability in our increasingly gender diverse world.
Learn more about mitigating gender-related unconscious bias.