A Guide to Gender-Neutral Language

A Guide to Gender-Neutral Language

Gender-inclusive language or gender-neutral language is written and spoken language that does not a) specify or indicate gender in any way and b) as a result of being ‘gender-neutral’, does not become sexist or exclusive to one gender.

Why does Gender-Neutral Language matter?

Language is constant evolving because that is how a language stays alive. Languages which do not adapt to culture and social change will eventually become extinct. And that is why gender-neutrality in language is so important; it is mutually inclusive to cultural and social values. As societies evolve, so must their language, because it is not just a means of communication, but also reflects the values and norms of the society we live in.

Furthermore, gender is incorrectly used in place of sex in verbal and written language, whereas sex is biological and denotes whether a human is male or female. Gender is a social construct that results from social conditioning and cultural norms regarding men and women. Moreover, we tend to think of gender in binaries, i.e. male and female, whereas gender is fluid and unconfined.

When we use non-inclusive language, we perpetuate offensive, misogynist stereotypes in our writing and speech. Whether in English or Urdu, every day we speak and write in ways that contribute to reinforcing an outdated mode of thinking that is a main source for gender inequality.

Using Gender-Neutral Language:

The rules of gender-neutral language are obviously not set in stone, but there are certain principles that can be followed to ensure inclusivity in language.

  1. Neutralize occupations/job titles:

Many jobs were historically associated with women, such as nurses, teachers, air-hostesses. Here are some suggestions in nuking gender from the equation altogether.

Male nurse/female nurse ———- Nurse

Male/female teacher ————- Teacher

Air-hostess/airhost ———– Flight attendant, cabin crew

Steward/stewardess ——— Flight attendant, cabin crew

Policeman/policewoman —— Police official

Sportsman/sportswoman ——  Athlete, sports person

Landlord/landlady———-  Owner/proprietor

Waitress/waiter ———-  Server

In some cases, it is acceptable to use a gender-specific occupational terms. This is relevant in writing about Pakistan, since there are parts of the country where culture dictates gender-segregation. In this case, it is important to specify female doctors or teachers, because failure to do so would result in a setback for women; imagine writing a proposal for a girls-school or women’s hospital in a tribal area, and failing to mention that the staff will be female. The school/hospital in question would possibly never become reality due to this lapse.

  1. Nuking the masculine pronouns:

A pronoun is a word that is used instead of a noun. In writing, we often use ‘he’ when referring to either gender. For example: “Any student found smoking on school property will find himself penalized with a fine.” There are a number of clever ways to bypass gender-specific pronouns.

Using they:

Rather than using a gendered pronoun, use ‘they’ instead. This should be used sparingly to avoid redundancy.

Converting to the plural form:

Consider this sentence instead;

“Students that are found smoking on school property will find themselves penalized.”

Use he/she:

When addressing a mixed audience, rather than using one pronoun, use ‘he or she’ instead.

“If any student is found smoking on school property, he or she will find themselves penalized.”

Removing gender from the equation:

Why use gender in the first place? Eliminate the pronoun from the sentence altogether.

“Students that are found smoking on school property will be penalized.”

  1. Avoiding Stereotypes:

Stereotypes exist in any language, but gender-specific stereotypes are dangerous because their usage supports social mindsets. Whether in Urdu or English, gender-specific stereotypes need to be avoided for ethical and professional writing.

Urdu phrases such as “haath mein mehendi laga kar bethi ho” (have you put henna on your hands?) or “chooriyan pehen rakhi hein” (you are wearing bangles) are two of the most commonly used insults. The first is hurled in the case of laziness or lack of willingness to do something. The second is similar, since the bangles South Asia is famous for are delicate glass, not to be worn when working for fear of breaking them. In both cases, the assumption is that the person is acting like a delicate woman who cannot do a single thing because she has henna on her hands. Simply put, a patriarchal society forces women into chadar aur chaar diwari (four walls and a black veil) and then uses that enforced captivity of women as insults.

Escaping gender-specific stereotypes in English are a tricky business. In Urdu, we are honest about our contempt for women; in English, we mask it with ease, as if it were English that is our mother tongue. Consider this example:

“Like a heartless paramour who wishes to make it clear that the fractures in the amour are not her fault. It’s you. It has always been you.”

The writer is talking about poor customer-service and while the comparison is amusing, the gender of this paramour is very specific. The writer is addressing the audience, not describing his own personal, heterosexual experience. So why is the language so exclusionary? Instead, the sentence can be revised to “his or her fault” or “their fault.” This example is actually an overlap of gender-specific pronouns and stereotypes, since the writer is adopting the stereotype of a temptress female that breaks hearts cruelly with no regards to the sad feelings of oppressed men.

Describing men as “hysterical females” or “emotional females” is another common slip-up for the non-gender-savvy writer. Gendered attributes such as physical strength indicating masculinity, or phrases like “reduced to the point of tears like a little girl” fall under the gender-specific stereotypes as well. Small gaffes cannot be referred to as ‘having a blond moment.’ No one thinks yellow-haired men when using this phrase, and everyone thinks of a stupid, yellow-haired woman. If your written work needs to use a woman as an example of weakness or ineptitude, or if you need to call someone a woman to challenge their masculinity, you’re doing it wrong.

  1. Generic Usage of Man:

Man used to be a generic term referring to people/humanity in general. As society evolves, so does language, and exclusionary language belongs to the past, not the present in which we struggle for a more egalitarian future. Women are part of the human race, as are men, and both need to be referred to collectively when discussing humanity. Whether it is one word, or a phrase, the generic man has outlived its time and has to be replaced by exclusionary terminology.

Generic Terms

Gender-Neutral Terms

Mankind

Humankind, humanity.

Man (Usage: Throughout the ages, man has…)

People, humanity

Man-made

Artificial, synthetic, manufactured

The common man

The  common person

Layman

Layperson, lay

The best man for the job

The best person for the job

Man’s achievements

Humanity’s achievements, human achievements

Primitive man

Primitive people, primitive humans

Manpower

Workforce, labour, personnel, staff

Fellow countryman/countrymen

Comrades, compatriots

  1. Sexist language:

Separate from gender-specific stereotypes, sexist language includes  an unnecessary focus on female attributes, characteristics, or personal information. For example, describing female students as naïve or innocent, whereas male students are just “young” or “teenagers” is a definite gender bias. Describing an outspoken woman as “spunky” may seem harmless, but it is a word associated primarily with women. Chances are you cannot remember a single point in your life when you called a man spunky (Although you’ve probably never used the word in your entire life). Attributing beauty to powerful women to make them seem less threatening (Because nothing is more frightening to the patriarchy or a misogynist than a woman exercising her own agency) is again, indulgent gender bias; a powerful woman does not need to be beautiful or elegant or any other traditionally feminine quality, just like Wonder Woman can wear less skimpy clothes and still be a powerful super-heroine.

Test Your Gender-Savvy Skills:

Remaining gender-neutral is a tricky task, but luckily, there are a number of online quizzes that test your skills at concealing your inherent misogyny in your writing.

Quiz 1

Quiz 2

Quiz 3

Further Reading:

The Guardian ran an excellent article on the importance of gender-neutral language.

APA has a comprehensive guide on avoiding sexist language.

Purdue Owl has a brief explanation on gender-inclusive language.

Here’s an article explaining gender-neutral titles and form of address.

For the disbeliever or MRA (Male Rights Activist, more commonly known as the anti-feminist) this article offers a brief history of the generic usage of masculine language.

The University of North Carolina offers an online guide to masculine pronouns and gendered language.

UNESCO has a comprehensive, essential list on gender-neutral language.

 Pakistan Feminist Watch wrote an excellent deconstruction of a number of tweets containing sexist jokes.

Blog Comments

ANy suggestions regarding how to gender-neutralize Urdu? I respond to neutral pronouns in English (they/them/their) but I can’t figure out how to neutralize Urdu., especially since even nouns and objects are gendered in Urdu.

I’m not sure if this is sexist but I also find the use of Mrs. odd. Why declare your marital status with your name? Rather archaic. Mrs. should generally be dropped for Ms.

sometimes, of course this depends on the context, it’s also possible to write Mx instead of having to choose between Mr & Ms

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