Buck Bond Group
Why gender-inclusive language matters

Why gender-inclusive language matters

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Thirty years ago, my favorite journalism professor told his eager class of budding journalists, of which I was one,When we use sexist language, we create a sexist society.”

Back then, using gender-neutral terms mostly meant not using language that excluded or marginalized women (although there were efforts to make English even more gender inclusive). Fireman, mailman, stewardess, mankind, etc., became firefighter, mail carrier, flight attendant, humankind, etc.

As awareness and understanding of nonbinary genders has grown, our language has evolved to become more inclusive. Today, gender-neutral language goes beyond binary distinctions she/he — to include all gender-diverse people.

According to a 2021 study by the UCLA Williams Institute, 1.2 million adults in the U.S. — 11% of the adult LGBTQ community — identify as nonbinary, meaning they don’t identify as male or female.

When a company uses gender-neutral language in its internal and external communications, it demonstrates a recognition and respect of people of all genders. Inclusive language has the power to boost morale, validate employees, make the company more attractive to job candidates, and broaden the diversity of the workforce.

Even the most complex organizations can easily adopt gender-inclusive language. The United Nations defines its gender-inclusive language as “… speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes.

In fact, English is less gendered than many other languages that use masculine and feminine nouns, verbs, and pronouns. According to a 2018 World Bank study 38% of the world’s population speaks a gendered language and the research also concluded that women in countries with gendered language often had fewer job and educational opportunities than men.

English has some gendered nouns — actor/actress, waitress/waiter, etc. and gendered pronouns: She/her/hers/herself and he/him/his/himself. While many gendered nouns have been replaced with genderless counterparts, pronouns have taken longer to evolve.

One of the easiest changes to make is to use the singular “they” in written communications. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its use to the 14th century. And, chances are good you’ve used the singular “they” in conversation since learning to talk.

So, what can your organization do to incorporate gender-inclusive language?

  • Create a gender-inclusive language policy and style guide.
  • Use singular “they” in your communications instead of he or she.
  • Check your forms and records: Employment, benefits, beneficiary, etc. Do they offer just “she or he” options? Do they allow employees to include their preferred name and pronouns?
  • Remove binary honorifics in communications such as Mr. or Ms. and instead use just the recipient’s name or, as a fallback, “To whom it may concern.”
  • Discourage defaulting to masculine expressions. For example, saying you guys” when addressing a group, using manpower” instead of “staff,” etc.
  • Be aware of how males usually come first in binomials: “men and women,” “boys and girls,” etc. Rather than simply flip flopping them on every other reference, just switch to using “they.”

Incorporating gender-inclusive language into your communications doesn’t require an overhaul of your corporate lexicon or your communications style guide. But it does require awareness and commitment that starts at the top of the organization. Non-inclusive language may make employees feel alienated, unseen, and under-valued. And when that happens, employees may disengage, either passively or actively.

And when that happens, it can affect your bottom line.