“We want a culture that is inclusive of everyone and where everyone who joins feels they have opportunities to succeed and grow.”- Nellie Borrero

The Gendering of Language

When you pay close attention, it’s hard to miss the fact that gendered words are part of everyday language. For most of my life, I just took these habits for granted.  But, moving to live in a society where diversity is in every corner, and learning from the community has made me more aware of how deeply ingrained gendered language is, and how harmful it could be.

Gender-neutral language, gender-inclusive language, inclusive language or gender neutrality is a form of linguistic prescriptivism that aims to eliminate or neutralize reference to gender in terms that describe people.

As the public becomes increasingly aware of gender identities that don’t strictly fit under “man” or “woman,” we’re running into an issue: Most languages were created with the gender binary in mind.

On the surface it may seem perfectly harmless to address a group of children as “girls and boys”, but many educators are moving away from the use of this language. This leads us to Misgender.

Misgendering is (unintentionally or intentionally) referring to, or addressing a person with a word that doesn’t reflect their gender. It can also include relating to a person in a way that makes incorrect assumptions about their gender. Children who are transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming experience frequent misgendering. This can be devastating to a child’s sense of safety, self-esteem and overall mental health. Language is a way of signaling to children “you belong here,” or conversely, “you don’t belong here.”

How do we solve this problem? To solve this, gender-neutral terms are popping up that can be used to refer to non-binary people or to talk about people without specifying their gender. These also let us talk about others in a less gendered way if, for example, we want to address a group in a way that makes everyone feel included or talk about someone’s partner if their gender hasn’t been disclosed.

Verbal and written communication is important! You have probably encountered documents that use masculine nouns and pronouns to refer to subject(s) whose gender is unclear or variable, or to groups that contain people who are not actually men.

For example, the U.S. Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal.” Generations of Americans have been taught that in this context, the word “men” should be read as including both men and women. Other common instances of gendered language include words that assume connections between jobs or roles and gender (like “policeman”) and language conventions that differ depending on the gender of the person being discussed (like using titles that indicate a person’s marital status).

English has changed since the Declaration of Independence was written. Most readers no longer understand the word “man” to be synonymous with “person,” so clear communication requires writers to be more precise.

The words we use can make the difference between forging positive connections or creating distance in our personal and professional lives.

“Language is power, and when we speak about mankind or the achievements of man, what we’re doing is confirming the subconscious bias that men are intellectually, morally, and physically superior to women”.- Sam Dowd

We could all stand to be more inclusive, so toward that end, here are some gender-neutral terms we should all be using.

7 Tips for Using Inclusive Language

1. Be aware. The first step is to notice. What type of gendered language are you using?  Does it exclude anyone?

2. Pronouns. If you are not sure what name or pronoun someone uses, ask!

Respect a person’s identity by calling them by the name and pronouns that they use.  Keep in mind that a person’s gender identity may change over time. Be open to changes in gender pronouns.

3. Relationships. Don’t make assumptions about marital or family relationships (for example, use spouse or partner instead of husband and wife; use parent instead of mother and father.

4. Professions. Use gender-neutral language when talking about careers and professions. For example, use “firefighters”, instead of “firemen” or “ballet dancer” instead of “ballerina”. Let children know that possibilities in life aren’t limited by gender.

5. Explore and unlearn the gender binary. The language we use is rooted in a binary system of gender that assumes only two genders. I used to take it for granted that this either/or way of seeing gender was natural. I’ve since learned that the binary is anything but natural, and that gender diversity has existed throughout history and across many cultures. 

6. Use “they/them” as a singular pronoun.

7. Explore alternative language. Use neutral language when talking about groups of people, and when you don’t know someone’s gender.  Here are some examples:

Ms., Mrs, or Mr.Mx
Latino, LatinaLatinx
Man Person, Individual
MankindHuman beings, Humanity
Fresh-manFirst Year Student
Man-MadeArtificial, Machine-made, Synthetic
The common manThe average person
ChairmanChair, chairperson, coordinator, head
MailmanMail carrier, letter carrier, the postal worker
PolicemanPolice officer
StewardStewardess, flight attendant
ActorActress actor
CongressmanLegislator, congressional representative
mommies and daddiesgrown-ups, adults, families
My sister, son, momMy sibling, child, parent
You guysFolks, You all, humans
No idea how to?You all, you. Leave it out.

I have pulled together these tips and I hope they are useful to your everyday. If you know any other feel free to comment!