Springe direkt zu Inhalt

Gender Sensitivity in English

Old printing letters made of wood in different colors and sizes.

Old printing letters made of wood in different colors and sizes.
Image Credit: CC0 https://unsplash.com/@amadorloureiroblanco

The Toolbox also provides an English text about gender- and diversity-conscious language in German.

Gender-sensitive language is a part of inclusive language — one that avoids words or expressions that promote prejudices, stereotypes, or discriminatory views. Inclusive language helps individuals feel like they belong and offers a way to reflect on the diverse nature of society. People experience discrimination based on different characteristics, such as race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, disability, socioeconomic status, personal appearance, level of language acquisition, etc. When thinking about strategies for inclusive language, it is important to consider several general questions:

● Is it necessary to refer to gender or any other characteristics when talking about a group of people or a single person?

● Is it certain that the notion is not disempowering people or reinforcing a stereotype?

● If you are referring to a group, does the statement reflect its diversity?

All of these questions also apply to the use of gender-sensitive language.

Strategies for gender sensitivity exist in many languages: in some, like in Swedish, it has become a norm that can be found in the dictionary, in German, some aspects are slowly gaining more acceptance, and in others, like in Russian, it is a practice brought into larger public spheres by marginalized groups and it is not yet widely spread. English as the third most widely spoken language in the world and arguably the most used language in academia on an international level is of particular interest in the case of gender sensitivity.

General Guidelines on Non-Discriminatory and Gender-Sensitive Language
The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics Guidelines for Non-Discriminatory Language Use (2011)
Guidelines for Gender-Inclusive Language in English (United Nations)
Handout on Gender-Inclusive Language (The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

1. Is English Gender-Neutral?

English is sometimes called a gender-neutral language as if it were a completely safe terrain in terms of inclusivity and sensibility for the issues of gender and sexuality. It’s true that in comparison to German or other gendered languages such as Spanish or Russian, English doesn’t require so many changes to be gender-neutral, but still, gender-neutrality is not something that comes with the language itself.  

Most cases of gender-marking in English happen through words that refer to people — nouns and personal pronouns. Unlike German, in English, inanimate objects - words like tablecoffee, or book - are not gendered. There are exceptions, such as the “metaphorical” gender, with words like shipcar, or bus that are sometimes referred to by feminine pronouns, but it is quite a short list that presents rather a peculiarity on a linguistic level than a stepping stone for societal change through language. 

2. Do's and Dont's of Gender-Marking in Nouns

Several issues occur in gender-marked nouns. Among the words that refer to occupations there are some that can either enforce an already existing stereotype or bring a diminishing connotation to the meaning. General recommendation in this case would be to avoid gender-marking and only use it symmetrically when gender is relevant to the topic. Another problem that gender-marked nouns create is the gender binary, which doesn't reflect the breadth and complexity of gender identities that go beyond female and male. This issue is also relevant for the way people are addressed, as in ladies and gentlemen or Dear Sir/Madam. Many family-related terms exclude non-heterosexual relationships and can be replaced with a neutral equivalent. Below you can find more information on all the mentioned issues with examples of gender-neutral wording.

Historically, the efforts of turning English into a more gender-sensitive language have been caused by the lack of visibility for women in the professional world. Many words that described occupations contained the suffix -man because these professional fields were at some point almost exclusively held by men. Consider words like businessmanchairman, or policeman. Even though most of these professional fields are not predominantly male anymore, some of these words are still used when referring to people of different genders. Some linguists call this type of word “male-biased” or “gender-biased”. In this particular context, by male or gender bias, they mean an at most times unconscious implicit belief that an undefined person is a man. This conflation of men with humanity was proven by multiple psycholinguistic experiments: most people imagine a man when seeing a title of a profession containing this particular suffix, especially if the occupation is stereotypically held by men, i.e. fireman. This contradicts the assumption that the suffix -man is inclusive to all genders.

Exposure to gender stereotypes can have a significant impact on thoughts and behaviors. This influence has motivated society to develop standards eliminating bias and to avoid practices contributing to this bias. One such standard is to eliminate gender-biased language, particularly language containing the suffix -man, and to replace it with more gender-neutral terms.

Feminine gender markers in nouns such as suffixes –ess, -enne, or –ette are currently in decline. Several words like actress or waitress are still often used, but the suffixes are not considered productive anymore, which means that speakers don’t use them regularly to create new words. Words like authoress or songstress as well as comedienne are considered diminishing and can be rarely found in texts.

Research shows that gender-neutral words are highly important in reducing stereotypes and implicit discrimination. Most of the examples shown below are already widespread and many people don’t even notice when they are using a gender-neutral equivalent of a «male-biased» word.

Gender-marked

Gender-neutral

chairman

chair

fireman

firefighter

policeman

police officer

salesman, saleswoman

salesperson

postman, postwoman

postal worker, mail carrier

steward, stewardess

flight attendant

cameraman

camera operator

crewman

crew member

doorman

door keeper

handyman

maintenance person, fixer

weatherman

meteorologist

stuntman

stuntperson

In other words containing generic man, it can be easily replaced with human.

Example:

mankind

humanity

man-made

human-made, in some contexts artificial 

Example:
In cases of generic use of man and men they can be replaced with one, anybody, everybody, somebody, individuals, etc.

Example:

Not only words containing -men can be exclusive. Consider concepts like sisterhood/brotherhood as well as sorority/fraternity. Depending on the context, they could be replaced with one of the following: camaraderie, guild, affiliation, club, fellowship, house, kinship, order and society.

Another type of gender marking is also widely spread when talking about occupations: adding male or female as well as lady or gentlemen and other similar pairings to gender-neutral words. This practice of gender specification is very visible in the field of sports. However, in most cases, it is used asymmetrically. Overt gender marking is much more common for women's participation in sport, both in terms of the sport itself (women's football) and the athletes participating (woman golfer). We do not see comparable gender marking tendencies in the use of the word men.

This tendency goes beyond sports. For example, female or women writers are often talked about, but when in 1991 Valerie Babb, the assistant professor of English at Georgetown University, named her course "White Male Writers”, it drew significant attention from students, other professors, and as a consequence, from the media.

Expressions such as female doctor or male nanny only emphasize an already existing stereotype and should not be used. In general, gender marking should be avoided, when talking about other people. The few justifiable cases would be those of symmetrical gender marking and/or when a person's gender is relevant for the content.

Example:

Some firms are paying female junior developers more than male ones.

Did you watch the men's football worldcup?

The problem of gender binary seems to be unavoidable when using this type of markings, however, there are different practices coming from LGBTQIA community that allow to be more inclusive. Consider the use of x in words like womxn or latinx.

One of the essential concepts in the current discourse on gender is heteronormativity, the attitude that heterosexuality is the sexuality by default. In English, there are ways to be more inclusive and avoid heteronormativity, especially when talking about relational terms.

Example:

partner or loved/beloved instead of girlfriend/boyfriend

sibling instead of sister/brother

parent instead of mother/father

spouse instead of wife/husband

An honorific is a respectful form of address. In English, many honorifics are gendered: Mr. indicates a man, Miss indicates an unmarried, Mrs. a married woman. At the beginning of the 20th century, a new honorific Ms. was introduced, the one that didn't imply the marital status of a woman. Currently, some use the title Mx. (pronounced mix), if they don't identify with the female or male gender or simply don't want to be referred to by a gendered honorific.

But it's not only honorifics that pose a problem for gender sensitivity. Every time we address a group of people, a question occurs as to what to call them. Commonly used Ladies and gentlemen, as well as informal Hey guys or Boys and girls, are not inclusive. Here is a non-exhaustive list of words that gender-marked addresses can be replaced with: folks, friends, colleagues, guests, collaborators, people, partners, associates, all assembled, team, everyone, everybody.

Example:

dear all or to whom it may concern instead of Dear Madame/Sir.

3. Do's and Dont's of Gender-Marking in Pronouns

It seems that personal pronouns present one of the few cases, in which English forces its speakers to decide on another person's gender. The quest for a gender-neutral pronoun in English language has been going on for centuries and it still sparks discussion both in the academic field and the media.

The pronouns commonly used for people, she and he, create a gender binary. This paradigm excludes people who don't identify as female or male. Non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer, transgender folks often use singular they or other alternatives, such as ze/zir/zirs or ze/hir/hirsKnowing about the complexities of gender identity and gender expression that go beyond binary, it is not appropriate to make assumptions about the gender identity of others.

Please note that preferred pronouns do not necessarily correlate with gender identity. Some non-binary, genderqueer, gender fluid folks may use pronouns she or he. Some people prefer to be called only by their name with no pronoun at all.

It is important to respect the privacy of other people and avoid making assumptions about their gender identity. Paying attention to how people refer to themselves helps, but it would be better to ask how they’d like to be called and which pronouns they use. If unsure how to ask another person about their preferred pronoun, you could start by introducing yours. This could serve as an invitation for others to share their pronouns.

Example:

Hello, my name is Jay, my pronouns are he/him/his. Please introduce yourself with your name and your preferred pronoun, if you feel comfortable sharing it.

Hello, my name is Jay, my pronouns are they/them/theirs. What's your name and pronoun?

Studies show that by giving students a chance to self-identify and by making the space more comfortable for non-majority students, you enhance creativity and decision-making in the classroom. Please be aware that talking about pronouns has many advantages, but also holds risks as it might be uncomfortable for some students or even force trans* or non-binary students to come out in class.

Please remember
A pronoun does not necessarily correlate with the gender identity of a person.
Never disclose your student's gender identity to anyone else unless they explicitly gave you their permission.
Respect your student's preferred pronouns and names.
If you made a mistake, acknowledge it and try avoiding it next time.

You can find more valuable advice in these guidelines for teaching beyond the gender binary at university.

For a long time, it was the generic pronoun he that was used when talking about mixed-gender groups or persons with unknown gender. Most grammarians at that time agreed that he also meant she, but when it came to legislation and women's rights, suddenly he referred exclusively to men. When the question arose if women could be lawyers or presidents, he wasn't generic anymore. An early exception of that rule was a case of the US Equal Rights Party member Anna Johnson who argued that if he was inclusive, then laws describing voters as he couldn't rule out women. In this way, she registered to vote almost 30 years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that prohibited the state from denying people to vote “based on sex”.

Just as it happened with occupations, the first attempts to avoid male bias were made by incorporating women into language: instead of he, generic she appeared as well as splits such as she or he and he or she or the form s/he. Soon it became apparent that none of them were inclusive. Since the discussion on gender expanded binary, singular they was once again introduced.

Singular they is not a new phenomenon in English. As the grammarian Dennis Baron points out in his book “What's Your Pronoun. Beyond He and She” (2020), the quest of searching for a gender-neutral pronoun in English has been going on for at least 200 years, and none of the currently used options is new. Even strictly from a grammatical point of view, none of the generics are actually “right”, for example in a sentence such as “everyone forgets his password'' there is no gender agreement between the words everyone and his. Baron offers a whole list of different pronouns that English speakers have come up with during the last 200 years, but singular they particularly stands out.

Its usage dates back to the fourteenth century. Even before the rise of gender linguistics, under the prescription of a generic masculine, they was commonly used to refer to someone whose gender was unknown or irrelevant - only at that point, it was considered informal and not suitable for writing. You could still find this opinion in some manual styles, but at the same time, singular they is being increasingly recognized and accepted by respected language authorities. Students, when writing in English, use singular they consequently, and even a rather conservative Chicago Manual Style three years ago introduced they as a substitute for the generic he when referring to a person whose gender is unknown: for example, does anybody want their paper reviewed?

There are also other techniques to achieve gender neutrality in texts when it comes to generic pronouns:

  • Omit the pronoun altogether. In many cases, it won't cause any significant change to the meaning of the sentence.

Example:

replace "The doctor should update the records when data is transferred to her by the insurance company" 

with "The doctor should update the records when data is transferred by the insurance company"

  • Replace the pronoun with generic one.

Example:

If one fails, then one must try harder next time

  • Use plural. When using this technique, pay attention to eventual slight changes in connotation.

Example:

replace A student must have passion towards his goals

with Students must have passion towards their goals. 

You can always find more strategies for gender neutrality in generic pronouns, and as discussion is evolving, further changes might occur in usage of generic pronouns.

You can add your preferred pronouns to your email signature.

Example:

Name Surname

Pronouns: she/her

Position

Contact

or

Name Surname (she/her)

Position

Contact

You can find more examples of email signatures with personal pronouns here.

Further reading:

Dennis Baron. 2020. What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She. Liveright Publishing

Baron, Dennis. 1986. Grammar and Gender. Yale University Press.

Baron, Dennis. 2020. What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She. Liveright Publishing.

Koeser, Sara; Sczesny, Sabine. 2014. Promoting Gender-Fair Language: The Impact of Arguments on Language Use, Attitudes, and Cognitions. In: Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 33(5) 548-560.

Lindqvist, Anna; Renström, Emma Aurora; Sendén, Marie Gustafsson. 2019. Reducing a Male Bias in Language? Establishing the efficiency of Three Different Gender-Fair Language Strategies. In: Sex Roles 2019: 81: 109-117.

Beller, Andrea; Beller, Sieghard; Karl; Christph Klauer. 2018. Gender Congruency From a Neutral Point of View: The Roles of Gender Classes and Conceptual Connotations. In: Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 2018, Vol.44, No10, 1580-1608.

Garnham, Alan; Gabriel, Ute; Sarrasin, Oriane; Gygax, Pascal; Oakhill, Jane. 2012. Gender Representation in Different Languages and Grammatical Marking on Pronouns: When Beauticians, Musicians, and Mechanics Remain Men, Discourse Processes, 49:6, 481-500.

Sczesny, Sabine; Moser, Franziska; Wood, Wendy. 2015. Beyond Sexist Beliefs: How Do People Decide to Use Gender-Inclusive Language? In: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2015, Vol. 41(7) 943–954

Karla A. Lassonde1, Edward J. O’Brien, 2013. Occupational stereotypes: activation of male bias in a gender-neutral world. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 2013, 43, pp. 387–396

Foertsch, J., & Gernsbacher, M. A. (1997). In Search of Gender Neutrality: Is Singular They a Cognitively Efficient Substitute for Generic He? Psychological Science, 8(2), 106–111.

Darren K. LaScotte; Singular they: An Empirical Study of Generic Pronoun Use. American Speech 1 February 2016; 91 (1): 62–80.

Bjorkman, B.M., 2017. Singular they and the syntactic representation of gender in English. Glossa: a journal of general linguistics, 2(1), p.80

Chicago Manual. 2017. Chicago Style for the Singular They

Purdue Online Writing Lab, College of Liberal Arts, Purdue University. Gendered Pronouns and Singular “They”

Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog. Comprehensive Links

Vanderbilt University. Teaching beyond the Gender Binary in the University Classroom


Version September 2020. Unless otherwise stated, this content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.