Gender Neutral Language: A Guide
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
While the language we use day in day out may not seem very significant, it can actually have a huge impact. Even more so when it comes to gendered terms.
In this guide, we're taking a look at what gender neutral language actually mean, the impact of gendered language on gender equality, and the measures being taken across the world to adopt more appropriate terms.
What is gender neutral language?
Gender-neutral language refers to language that avoids bias to a particular sex or social gender. In the 1970s, the field of linguistics began to explore how language mirrors and shapes thought, impacting society as a whole. In 1980, feminist authors Casey Miller and Kate Swift released their Handbook on Non-Sexist Language, drawing attention to the ways in which language reinforces patriarchal ideas about male superiority.
The term ‘androcentrism’ best describes this phenomenon whereby the world and its mechanisms are set up to revolve around men. While their book was viewed as radical, the resulting conversation about gendered language has been extensive, controversial, and productive. The European Parliament is leading the way as one of the first institutions to adopt guidelines on gender-neutral language in 2008.
There are two significant reasons why gendered language is problematic. Firstly, it reproduces stereotypes about gender roles and implies social hierarchy. In many languages, the word ‘man’ is used in expressions and contexts that refer to both sexes, such as: mankind, manpower, man-made etc. This has the effect of suggesting men are the default sex, while women are accessories to their existence.
The titles for many professions include the word ‘man’: fireman, chairman, and policeman. Immediately, this reinforces stereotypes about the person we can expect to see in such roles. Multiple studies have assessed the impact of using gender-neutral language in job advertisements. In 2011, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the description of STEM industry jobs overwhelmingly use words that are associated with male characteristics, including: ‘confidence’, ‘decision’ and ‘logical’. This was shown to attract more men to apply for the roles, deepening the gender disparity across the labour market.
Similarly, in their book Language, Gender and Feminism, Sara Mills and Louise Mullany quote a study where men and women are found to apply for jobs in more equal proportions when a gender-neutral job title is used in the advertisement. This suggests that gendered language can lead to women feeling excluded and deterred from applying. Therefore, improving the inclusivity of language is a crucial first step that employers can take towards a diverse workforce.
Secondly, there is a need for gender-neutral language to transform our binary view of gender. The use of personal pronouns (he/his and she/her) excludes people who are non-binary and do not identify as either gender. This can lead to misgendering, dismissing an individual’s gender identity in a manner that can be disrespectful and invalidating. The English language has adopted the gender-neutral use of a singular ‘they’. This becomes more inclusive for non-binary people who do not identify with ‘he’ or ‘she’.
Read our guide on Pronouns to find out more.
Critics have argued that the singular use of ‘they’ creates problems in formal language and results in new words and expressions (a neologism) that do not make grammatical sense. For example, the extension of a singular ‘they’ would lead to a sentence containing ‘themself’, which has not yet been established as coherent in English and so could result in confusion.
While the European Parliament has shown a convincing commitment to gender-neutral language, it also emphasises the importance of clarity and precision when writing legislation. Therefore, it recognises how such neologisms must not be used in cases when it will create ambiguity or infringe on the ability of people to understand, translate or interpret the text. This highlights how the use of gender-neutral language will vary according to the setting and form of the language.
Approaches across different languages
Each language requires a unique and specific approach to gender-neutrality. This can make it more difficult to translate gender-neutral modifications in bilingual settings. In English, there has been a push to reduce gender-specific terms, neutralising job titles that have connotations of gender. For example, ‘policeman’ becomes ‘police officer’ or ‘stewardess’ becomes ‘flight attendant’. In some cases, the traditionally male noun has become a general term, for example the term ‘actress’ has been replaced by a blanket use of ‘actor’. This emphasises the irrelevance of gender in the execution of the profession and becomes inclusive for non-binary people.
However, in Romance languages, where all nouns are assigned a gender, it is almost impossible to construct a gender-neutral sentence. Here, the approach to reduce sexist language is to introduce corresponding job titles for women in professional roles. This process of feminisation gives women equal visibility in historically male-dominated professions. While this has been seen as a reflection of women’s emergence in the workplace, it has also been argued that the female form is still derived from the male term. Until women have their own titles entirely, many feel that women will still be viewed with a sense of secondary importance.
"The structure of many languages reflects their evolution in a patriarchal society."
Still, it is not as simple as amending vocabulary. In both French and Spanish, for example, grammar rules can highlight unequal social status. When referring to a group of females, the arrival of one male will cause the sentence to revert to the male pronoun. The same does not happen when a female is present in a male group. This emphasises how the structure of many languages reflects their evolution in a patriarchal society, demonstrating the many complexities and layers to eliminating gendered language.
Gender-neutral language – too politically correct?
A broader criticism against gender-neutral language was highlighted controversially by Canadian professor Jordan Peterson in 2016. Taking opposition to non-binary pronouns, Peterson claims that gender-neutral language is extreme left-wing political correctness. He argues that it censors and violates a person’s right to freedom of speech through ‘attempts to control the ideological and linguistic territory’. This draws into question the blurred lines in legislation surrounding hate speech and human rights protection for non-binary people, as well as a broader debate about personal liberties.
While Dr Peterson’s stance is taken to the extreme, it points to the issues of implementing language that will not feel natural to many people. This is especially problematic for older generations, who are potentially less aware and familiar with the concepts and issues that underlie the need for language reform.
Moving forward – the case of Sweden
Gender-neutral language must be accompanied by an improved education and conversation on sexism and gender identity problems. This will provide a cultural backdrop that is open and understanding of the importance of gender-neutral language, improving its long-term effectiveness.
Sweden provides a hopeful case study for slow but effective change. A new gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ surfaced in informal settings in the 1960s but can now be found in national newspapers, official texts, court rulings and literature. Studies by the National Academy of Sciences found that its use has made wider room for non-male categories, such as female and non-binary. Consequently, this shift has reduced bias towards traditional gender roles and improved gender representation.
While the conversation on gender-neutral language is complicated, nuanced and inconclusive, the ensuing international discussion provides awareness and provisions that will improve the use of language in a gender-sensitive manner.
For more resources on everyday sexism and gender equality, head to our Gender Issues & Feminism section.