Gender issues in a linguistic world

Anyone might think that English speakers live in a linguistically luxurious world. While our neighbours ‘on the continent’ are desperately trying to render their language gender-inclusive or gender-neutral, the English can congratulate themselves on having a language that does not have to worry about the genders of nouns, tends not to have gender-specific terms for professions and does not even need to work out whether the word ‘you’ is to be used formally or informally. Or are things really that simple?

Genderneutrale Sprache

What's happening in other countries resembles what happened in the use of the English language back in the 1970s, when the women’s movement challenged the standard practice of using masculine nouns and pronouns as a general rule. As a result, policemen and policewomen have become police officers, you'll hear of firefighters and not firemen fighting fires, and a chairman should really be called just a chair or at most a chairperson. And remember the people that used to work on aeroplanes? Everybody liked being pampered by a ‘stewardess’ but the pleasure is just as great when we think of them under their gender-inclusive term ‘flight attendant’. Having said that, English has long since promoted gender-neutral words for professions not making any linguistic distinction between male and female doctors/teachers etc.

But English is the lingua franca and as such is used by both native and non-native speakers. The UN has even compiled a gender-sensitive lexicon of over 600 terms drawn from literature published by the UN and UN Women and has issued dedicated guidelines for the use of gender-inclusive language. These are intended to help everyone avoid being too gender-specific and also help people steer clear of stereotyping. Given that modern businesses are vying for attention on the Internet, it's enormously important to ensure that any texts issued appeal to everyone. If texts sound as if they've been written by men exclusively for men, companies will soon lose the interest of all the women out there who have purchasing power but feel neither addressed nor visible in texts that are insensitive to gender issues. This must be taken into account in corporate language.

Avoiding the problem

So how can we make sure we write in a gender-sensitive way and avoid stereotyping? Instead of having to choose between a masculine or feminine word, you can use a plural form. For example, in a gender-sensitive world

“Every student has to show his student ID card if he wants to get a discount on stationery products.”

can become

“All students have to show their student ID cards if they want to get a discount on stationery products.”

This is also a more elegant approach than using slashes for his/her and then he/she as this can negatively impact readability. Alternatively, you can use the passive voice, providing you do so in moderation: “Student ID cards have to be shown for you to qualify for a discount on stationery.” Also, ensure you do not stereotype in any examples you use. Contrary to popular belief, the world is not full of female nurses and cleaners or male engineers and managers.

The use of titles is also important in corporate language. Women in the English-speaking world had to fight for a long time before this issue could be resolved. Whereas men were always referred to as Mr, women had been referred to as Miss or Mrs since the 19th century – titles clearly denoting their marital status. In corporate communications, marital status is unlikely to be of any relevance and women see the title as an invasion of privacy. Why should a woman reveal her marital status when a man doesn't have to? Women in the English-speaking world now have equality not only with men, but also with their counterparts abroad who can use Madame, Frau or Señora regardless of whether they are married or not.

Delicate issue

It's time to rethink the matter. Gender issues are being reflected in our use of language. And that's a good thing if it helps create a more socially-conscious and inclusive culture. For companies that means addressing all potential customers, whatever their gender, in a considered way and increasing their own popularity and success in the process.


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