Best practices for gender-sensitive communication

Most companies today are committed to using inclusive language to ensure their customers and employees feel valued and respected. It can be argued that making sure communications are gender neutral is much easier in English compared to other languages where grammatical inflection poses more of a challenge. For instance, German speakers have to choose between three gender-specific articles, ‘der’, ‘die’ and ‘das’, whereas this is easily avoided in English with the simple gender-neutral article ‘the’.

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A variety of strategies and workarounds need to be used across many languages to ensure nouns are rendered in a gender-neutral way. For instance, there are over ten different options for German speakers to choose from. These include gender stars (Student*innen), gender colons (Student:innen), nominalised forms (Studentierende) and paired forms (Student und Studentin). Not all options are suitable, such as the paired form that doesn’t take into account non-binary people who prefer to be addressed in a non-gendered way.

People and professions

Even though English speakers do not have to grapple with these kinds of complexities, they are not completely off the hook. For instance, words describing roles and professions still cause confusion and controversy. Should a meeting be run by a ‘chairman’, ‘chairwoman’, ‘chairperson’ or simply a ‘chair’? Are you greeted on a plane by an ‘air steward’ (male form) or a ‘flight attendant’ (gender neutral)? Does the female-identifying Oscar winner want to be referred to as an actor or an actress?

For companies and organisations, this problem can be resolved by selecting the most gender-neutral options. These should then be specified in style guides that are easy for employees to access and understand. Translators can play an important role in highlighting any discrepancies and suggesting the inclusion of clear guidance in style guides.

Pronoun problems

Another contentious linguistic issue among English speakers is the use of gender-neutral pronouns, which has sparked heated debates across society within what are termed the ‘culture wars’. Traditionalists have been unhappy about changes in language usage because they feel it challenges traditional gender roles. Despite these complaints, a vast number of people and organisations now prioritise inclusive language to ensure no one is discriminated against on the grounds of gender. Many people now specify their pronouns on their social media profiles, signalling a growing awareness and acceptance of diverse gender identities.

Interestingly, the new approach to pronouns has led to a change in grammatical rules within the English language. Even though it is grammatically incorrect in conventional terms, the singular their/they/them pronoun is now commonly used to avoid specifying gender. For example, the recommended gender-sensitive approach is to say, ‘The doctor greets their patients’ instead of ‘The doctor greets his or her patients’. A good workaround is to change the noun to a plural, which avoids alarming any grammar purists. So, instead of saying, ‘A doctor should greet their patients’, say ‘Doctors should greet their patients’.

Even though English speakers have to give some thought to pronoun use, the problem is more challenging to overcome in other languages where it is more difficult to use the third person plural form (their/they/them). In German, for example, many writers use the person’s name to avoid using a pronoun. Many languages are also seeing the emergence of gender-neutral neo-pronouns, such as ‘xier’ (German) and ‘ul’ (French). These forms are not widely recognised or used, but language is a dynamic and evolving thing and it is possible that they may become the norm in years to come.

Good guidance

In the English-speaking world, the use of gender-sensitive language is now mandated in many corporate style guides and advocated by English language experts such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Merriam-Webster, as well as government organisations and diversity charities such as Stonewall and Gendered Intelligence. Useful guides can be found on their websites. The Conscious Style Guide is another useful online reference that provides guidance and tools to promote sensitivity and inclusivity in language.

These kinds of guides also provide advice about current trends in word usage. For example, some English speakers are not in favour of words that incorporate the word ‘man’, such as ‘man-made’, ‘man hours’ or ‘manpower’. In these cases, gender-neutral alternatives can be used such as ‘synthetic’, ‘labour hours’ and ‘workforce’. A little extra thought is simply needed to take these kinds of issues into account. This is why it is important that organisations encourage open dialogue and engage the help of specialists who make it their mission to keep up to date with the most commonly accepted forms.

The role of translators

As translators, it is important to cultivate a sensitivity towards potentially non-inclusive language and to strive to find the most appropriate gender-neutral option or workaround. If in any doubt, it is important to flag any concerns and request additional information from the client in terms of company policy and preferred usage. A few extra moments of thoughtful consideration and research are all it takes to ensure that the text you are translating resonates with everyone in the room.

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