How to neutralize gender bias through your writing.
Gender equality is a fundamental human right. Despite this, unconscious bias continues to form an invisible barrier to equal opportunity affecting those we care for most in life — our families, friends and colleagues.
As a writer, you have a choice to either enforce or neutralize gender bias through your work.
What is gender-neutral language and why is it important?
Language shapes our cultural and societal attitudes. Until the 1970s, the use of masculine pronouns in place of generic was the custom. Women’s movements were successful in challenging this sexist norm.
Gender-neutral language has since become the norm for progressive writers, journalists and thought-leaders. Most governments and schools also use language that places women and men at the same level.
In theory, the battle against sexist language is over.
In reality, women still have fewer opportunities than men; we get paid less and treated less well.
What will it take to reach gender parity?
On average, women still earn less than 24% than men globally.
Less than 5% (4.8%) of Fortune 500 companies had female CEOs in 2018.
At the board level women hold a little over 20% of positions.
Why do corporations disenfranchise woman?
Diversity enhances creativity. Frustrated shareholders pointed this out to Mark Zuckerberg when Facebook went public in 2012 with no women on its board:
There is clear evidence that companies with diverse boards perform far better than the companies with more homogenous boards.
Research backs this:
Harvard’s School of Public Health ranked Fortune 500 companies by number of women directors present on their boards and found those in the highest quartile had a 42% greater return on sales.
Unconscious bias has a major impact on the careers, self-esteem and financial health of women. If this doesn’t bother you, then consider how it impacts the bottom line:
A recent analysis from 2020 Women on Boards found 55% of companies that fell off the Fortune 1000 index had one or zero women on their boards.
Companies that invest in growing their female talent pool will be the winners in a changing and competitive environment.
What can we do to change for better?
If you are a woman — you are at the coalface of gender bias. You can call out unconscious biases that form an invisible barrier and empower other women to do the same.
If you are a man — you can work alongside women to achieve gender equality and embrace healthy, respectful relationships.
Minding your language is key
Gendered language continues to be problematic because it casts successful women as outliers.
No one says “female doctor” or “female lawyer” anymore. This is known to devalue the achievement of a skilled professional.
Yet, we persist in appending “female” to neutral terms such as executives or leaders turning them into default-male ones. When we do this, we diminish women while cementing leadership within the male domain.
Why do we persist in referring to “chairman” instead of the more inclusive “chair” or “chairperson”?
The perpetrators are not always men either — women are guilty of outmoded and non-inclusive language as well.
Come on folks, we can do better than this.
Is it so hard to empower people and be inclusive?
No more excuses or rationalizations.
How does gender-neutral language work?
Adopting a gender-sensitive lexicon is far easier than you may expect. Being mindful is the first step. Gender-neutral text does not affect readability. It generally reads well, if not better, than outmoded gendered text.
There are several ways to promote gender equality though language in a text. It’s as easy as 1, 2 & 3 below.
1) Use gender-neutral expressions
Avoid gender-specific nouns when making generic references to both men and women. For example, the words policeman and stewardess are gender-specific. The corresponding gender-neutral terms are police officer and flight attendant.
Here are a few more examples.
- Replace men and mankind, with people, humanity, human beings, humankind, we, women and men etc
- Replace man-made disaster with human induced disaster.
- Replace congressman with legislator, congressional representative, or parliamentarian etc.
- Replace chairman with chair, chairperson or head.
- Replace landlord, landlady with owner and so on.
2) Use inclusive language
The use of the generic masculine form to refer to both genders creates a gender bias.
Avoid > A good student knows that he should strive for excellence.
Prefer > A good student strives for excellence.
3) Use both feminine and masculine forms of words
Each professor should send his or her assistant to the conference.
Whoever she is. Wherever he lives. Every child deserves a childhood.
Note: A gender-neutral alternative to he or she is the singular they.
Use the active voice to show empowerment of women. Avoid expressions that have a negative connotation.
Avoid > Carol had lunch with the girls at the office
Prefer > Carol had lunch with some colleagues at the office
Avoid stereotyping roles.
Avoid > The Conference participants and their wives are invited.
Prefer > The Conference participants and their spouses/partners/guests are invited.
Be the change!
Gender bias continues to be an invisible barrier to equal opportunity. As a writer, you have a choice to either enforce or neutralize gender bias through your work.
By rewiring linguistic patterns we can create a more even playing field for all.
So, if you would like to make a difference, please mind your language!
Till next time,
For comprehensive guidelines on gender-sensitive expression, see the UN Women gender-sensitive lexicon.