How to be More Gender-Inclusive in Your Language

How to be More Gender-Inclusive in Your Language

In my previous post, I talked about how annoying it is when, as a woman, someone refers to me as “Sir”. This is one of the many reasons why I think it is important to use gender-inclusive language. So here’s a short list[1] of gender-neutral alternatives you can use when you are addressing someone whose gender you do not know, or when you are referring to a hypothetical person:

  • Use ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ instead of ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Sirs’
  • Use ‘Chair’ or ‘Chairperson’ instead of ‘Chairman’
  • Use ‘she/he’, ‘he/she’, ‘s/he’ or ‘they’ instead of ‘he’[2]
  • Use ‘him/her’, ‘her/him’ or ‘them’ instead of ‘him
  • ‘Use ‘humankind’ instead of ‘mankind’
  • Use ‘artificial’ instead of ‘manmade’
  • Use ‘the average person’ instead of ‘the common man’
  • Use ‘layperson’ instead of ‘layman’
  • Use ‘security guard’ instead of ‘security man’
  • Use ‘police officer’ instead of ‘policeman’
  • Use ‘relative’ instead of ‘kinsman’
  • Use ‘firefighter’ instead of ‘fireman’
  • Use ‘reporter’ instead of ‘newsman’
  • Use ‘flight attendant’ instead of ‘air hostess’[3]
  • Use ‘fresher’ or ‘first-year student’ instead of ‘freshman’
  • Use ‘Member of Congress’ or ‘legislator’ instead of ‘Congressman’
  • For the believers out there, use ‘child of God’ instead of ‘son of God’

I’m not going to pretend that I don’t still make these mistakes sometimes. As much as I try to be gender-inclusive in my language, I still refer to a someone whose gender I do not know as ‘he’ sometimes. The most embarrassing one for me was when I was working as a Legal Aide during my uni days and my supervisor asked me to draft a letter for one of her clients’ psychologist. And what did I do? I subconsciously assumed that the psychologist was a man, and I referred to her as ‘he’.

Imagine my embarrassment when my supervisor sent the letter back to me and told me that she corrected the ‘he’ to a ‘she’. I didn’t even realise that I had written ‘he’ until I went back to proofread my original letter. The interesting thing is that the name of the psychologist was in the letter, and it was clearly a feminine name, so I should have known that the psychologist was a woman. But because my writing ‘he’ was a subconscious process, I didn’t even realise when I did it.

All these happened even when I had already started using gender-neutral words in my writing, so you can see just how much we have implicitly been conditioned to see people in positions of authority as men. This reinforces the point made by the NCTE, that language plays a central role in human cognition and behavior, and is one of the most common mechanisms by which gender is constructed and reinforced.

To undo years of conditioning that causes us to use masculine language will not be easy. But is it impossible? I don’t think so. If we start to make a conscious effort to use more gender-inclusive language, then over time we might be able to reach a point where there is no preference for the male standard in our language, thinking, and actions.

1. The one word I really can’t find a good gender-neutral alternative for is ‘hypeman‘. Let me know if you have any suggestions for this word in the comment section!

2. UPDATE: As the recognition of more genders than male and female has become more widespread, it has also become more acceptable to use ‘they’ to refer to a single person. To be inclusive of more genders, you can use ‘they’ instead of the binary ‘he/she’ when referring to a hypothetical person.

3. This is another example to show how language impacts our thinking. Even though our language is usually masculine, we are more used to saying ‘air hostess’ than ‘air host’, because this is a job that is traditionally represented as being held by a woman.


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7 thoughts on “How to be More Gender-Inclusive in Your Language

  1. Pingback: Redefining Language – Woman Up

  2. Thank you for this!!!

    I think it will also help if we stop seeing professions are either male or female. For example, let’s stop picturing nurses are women and engineers or security guards are men. Let’s try to also change our mentality about this.

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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