A good trick is to reverse the gender: Would reversing the designation or the term from masculine to feminine or vice versa change the meaning or emphasis of the sentence?
The United Nations has a great set of guidelines to support its staff in using gender-inclusive language in all types of communication, whether it is oral or written, formal or informal, or addressed to an internal or external audience. Below, we've pulled out some of their key takeaways to adapt to all workplaces.
The first thing to note is when deciding what communication strategies to use, we should:
- Take into account the type of text/oral communication, the context, the audience and the purpose of the communication;
- Ensure that the text is readable and the text/oral communication clear, fluid and concise;
- Seek to combine different strategies throughout the text/oral communication.
Usage of genders in English
In English, there is a difference between gender in terms of:
- “grammatical gender”,
- “gender as a social construct” (which refers to the roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society at a certain time considers appropriate for men or women), and
- “sex” as a biological characteristic of living beings.
The gender markers include the pronouns and possessives (he, she, her and his); and some nouns and forms of address. Most English nouns, however, do not have grammatical gender forms (teacher, president), while some are specifically masculine or feminine (actor/actress, waiter/waitress). The good thing is, some nouns that once ended in -man now have neutral equivalents that are used to include both genders (police officer for policeman/policewoman, spokesperson for spokesman, chair/chairperson for chairman).
A challenge that remains for gender-inclusive communication in English is the use of the masculine form by default. For example, “Every Permanent Representative must submit his credentials to Protocol.”
How to use non-discriminatory language
- When referring to or addressing specific individuals, use forms of address and pronouns that are consistent with their gender identity. If the situation permits, one may ask the persons you are addressing or writing about what pronoun and form of address should be used for them.
- If you are the author of a text that is going to be translated, and your text is referring to a specific person, please let translators know what the gender of that person is so they can use appropriate language in their translations. This is crucial for languages such as Arabic, French, Russian and Spanish.
- There should also be consistency in the way women and men are referred to: if one of them is addressed by their name, last name, courtesy title, or profession, the other one should be as well.
Example of less-inclusive messaging: “Professor Smith (surname and title for a man) and Madeline (first name for a woman) will attend the luncheon.”
How to make this more inclusive: “Professor Smith and Professor Jones will attend the luncheon (surname and title for both).”
Example of less-inclusive messaging: “Guests are cordially invited to attend with their wives.”
How to make this more inclusive: “Guests are cordially invited to attend with their partners.”
- “She throws/runs/fights like a girl.”
- “In a manly way.”
- “Oh, that’s women’s work.”
- “Thank you to the ladies for making the room more beautiful.”
- “Men just don’t understand.”
How do you know you are using discriminatory language?
Reverse the gender: Would reversing the designation or the term from masculine to feminine or vice versa change the meaning or emphasis of the sentence? Would it make the sentence sound odd?
“Women should not seek out leadership positions.”
“Men cannot do two things at the same time.”
How to make gender visible when it is relevant for communication
“Pairing” is the use of both feminine and masculine forms (he or she; her or his). It is a strategy that may be used when the author/speaker wants to explicitly make both women and men visible. It is advisable not to overuse this strategy in English, however, as it may be distracting to the reader, in particular in narrative texts. It may also create inconsistencies or render the text less accurate — for example, in legal texts.
It may be more appropriate to alternate masculine and feminine forms by paragraph or section, rather than by sentence or phrase.
Example: “When a staff member accepts an offer of employment, he or she must be able to assume that the offer is duly authorized. To qualify for payment of the mobility incentive, she or he must have five years’ prior continuous service on a fixed-term or continuing appointment.”
In cases in which highlighting gender would make the sentence more inclusive (owing to popular beliefs or preconceptions), two separate words can be used.
“Boys and girls should attend the first cooking class with their parents.”
“All of the soldiers, both men and women, responded negatively to question 5 in the survey on gender inclusivity.”
Comparative examples of less inclusive and more inclusive language
|Less inclusive||More inclusive|
|“Plans to outsource some 19 services have not proceeded at the anticipated pace, as there are significant manpower shortages.”||“Plans to outsource some 19 services have not proceeded at the anticipated pace, as there are significant staffing shortages.”|
|“A staff member in Antarctica earns less than he would in New York.”||“A staff member in Antarctica earns less than one in New York.”|
|“If a complainant is not satisfied with the board’s decision, he can ask for a rehearing.”||“A complainant who is not satisfied with the board’s decision can ask for a rehearing.”|
|“A substitute judge must certify that he has familiarised himself with the record of the proceedings.”||“Substitute judges must certify that they have familiarised themselves with the record of the proceedings.”|
|“Mankind”||“Humankind”; “humanity”; “human race”|
Photo / Shutterstock
ALSO READ: Words matter: How to use inclusive language in the workplace
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