How to get started with gender neutral language
Six tips to help you be more inclusive, so that you can attract and engage a more diverse audience.
- 5 minute read
When I started learning French at school, I remember the first thing that struck me was how some words were masculine and some feminine. Having only known English until this point, I wondered how anything inanimate, or conceptual could be assigned a gender.
In more recent years, I’ve begun to further realise that many languages are inherently gender biased because of the way they’ve been formed. In particular, within French, Spanish, Hindi and Arabic, masculine is the default gender and feminine nouns are often variations on the masculine ones.
And while in English this doesn’t happen as often, we do still choose to assign genders to certain objects as part of tradition. Boats or ships for example are often referred to as being female, or will be given female names.
As the English language evolved from a myriad of other languages, Latin and French among them, it’s only natural that we’ve adopted some of the same practices with assigning genders.
Why does gender bias matter?
The words we use are shaped over time by the societies and cultures they are part of. They reflect and influence how a society or culture considers gender. They are full of meaning, they are nuanced and they change gradually over time.
Think about the word gay.
In the 14th Century it was taken to mean ‘full of joy, merry; light-hearted, carefree’. It went through subtle changes to how it was used throughout the following centuries, becoming more connected to brothels, but only in the 1940’s do we see the clear association with homosexual as we know it today.
Often it was used in a derogatory sense by psychologists as well as being slang used by homosexuals. There is even a more modern use of gay from around 2000, when for a time it came to mean ‘bad, inferior or undesirable’.
The impact on recruitment writing
For anyone working within the recruitment or employer brand world, this can feed into who wants to apply for a role and how comfortable they feel doing this. And on the flip side it can impact who we hire, how we assess candidates and who we choose to promote.
Example job ad below:
The above example uses the masculine noun Chairman, which is clearly gender biased. A more gender neutral term would be Chairperson. Alongside this however, it also uses words which are gender-coded1.
Leadership, decision, driven, challenge – are all words which research has shown to be currently more appealing to men and less appealing to women when applying for jobs. This is less about a direct translation of a word and more about how we feel about a word’s meaning in the present day. These meanings may change over time as perceptions of gender change, but it’s good to be aware of them when you’re writing.
Forgetting the binary
One of the biggest challenges we face with language today is that we do not live in a binary world. The way people think about gender has advanced drastically and there now exists a whole spectrum of gender identities to consider.
If we continue to use language in such a binary way, we will be alienating a huge proportion of society from feeling included, accepted and equal. We need to think about not just the language we use when writing, but how we speak to others too – accepting that it’s up to others to choose how they’d like to be referred to.
So, where can you start?
The best way is to keep yourself informed and up-to-date. Read articles on the use of inclusive language and how it’s changing, learn about LGBTQ+ terminology and the pronouns people like to use. That way you can know if a term is becoming outdated or if a new term comes to light and is preferred.
And to help you make a start today towards more inclusive writing, here are six quick tips to remove gender bias from your communications.
- Use people’s preferred pronouns wherever you can. Ask if you can, and when you’re not sure, avoid using gendered pronouns like he/she and use ‘they/them’ instead.
- Always check for gender neutral job titles: Fireman – firefighter, Salesman – salesperson, Postman – postal worker, Policeman – police officer.
- If you’re describing a person and the role they do – ensure you’re not adding unnecessary and gender biased information. For example, “She’s a really good female software developer.” There’s no need for the word female, and it only seeks to reinforce a belief that this isn’t a role usually performed by women.
- Watch out for biased terms for groups of people or idioms – mankind, man-made, the common man. These can be replaced with words like people/human-kind, handmade/manufactured, average person/everyone.
- You could also play with gender expectations and try to ‘flip the narrative’. Say you’re recruiting for a nurse. Many people would think of women first in this role because of stereotypes which already exist. Using words which are more masculine to describe the role, might encourage a more diverse audience to read and respond to it.
- Run your job adverts through a tool like The Gender Decoder by Kat Matfield to check for gender coded words and try to find a better balance.
Want to know more about how to approach diversity, inclusion and equality within your communications? Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Gaucher, D., Friesen, J. & Kay, A.C. (2011) Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101(1), p109-28.