How to use gender-neutral language, and why it is important to try

by Pisana Ferrari – cApStAn Ambassador to the Global Village

“International Non-Binary People’s Day” is celebrated ever year on the 14th of July since 2012 and is aimed at raising awareness around the issues faced by non-binary people. The use of a more inclusive, gender-neutral language is one such issue, as it is an important means of showing respect to those that don’t identify as male or female. However, much of our everyday language still excludes non-binary people, writes author and UCLA lecturer Kim Elsesse, an expert in the field, in a recent article for Forbes. Small tweaks to our language usage can go a long way to respect non-binary individuals and may have the additional benefit of increasing overall gender equality, she adds. Because of the way language works, moving away from a binary perspective on gender will take time and effort. Encouragingly, a number of prominent public figures are opening up about their gender identity, and many organisations worldwide are working towards the use of more inclusive language. The UN, WHO, International Labour Organization, European Parliament and European Commission, and a number of professional associations, universities, companies, major news agencies and publications have introduced internal guidelines for the gender-neutral use of language. 

Pronouns matter: the example of English

Not all languages have gendered pronouns but, in English, using “he” and “she” requires us to assign a gender to an individual. Last year the Merriam-Webster dictionary added to the definition of the word “they” to explain the word’s use as a singular pronoun, and the use of “they” is increasingly catching on. There are many other gender-neutral pronouns that can be used; a web search revealed as many as 78 different options. Many LGBT advocates and their supporters, public figures, and people in general, have taken to adding their pronouns in e-mail signatures and social media profiles (for example, US presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro and Bill de Blasio added their pronouns to their official Twitter accounts), and pronoun badges are also becoming popular, e.g. in companies, for staff, and schools and universities, for students.

Gender-neutral language in everyday life

Gender-neutral language is not just about pronouns, of course, as it affects all areas of life: personal titles, family relations, ethnicity, names of professions, and much more. The gender-neutral “Mx” can be used as an alternative title for those who do not identify as being of a particular gender (Mr, Mrs and Ms are all gendered). “X” is also being used to define members of ethnic groups (Latinx in place of Latino/Latina; Philipinx in place of Philipino/Philipina). In the family setting, gender-neutral terms like partner and spouse can be used in the place of husband and wife, and sibling, child and parent are also gender-neutral relations. In the workplace waitresses and waiters are now often called servers, mailmen are called mail carriers, and occupational titles like police officer, firefighter, chairperson and flight attendant have replaced their gendered predecessors. 

Looking to the future

Providing information and raising awareness about gender-neutral language does not automatically lead to change. The degree to which people will embrace gender-neutral language depends on many different factors, including cultural, religious and political beliefs. Data from a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, for example, revealed that 60% of Americans had heard “at least a little” about people using gender-neutral pronouns and about one-in-five U.S. adults know someone who goes by a gender-neutral pronoun — so the level of awareness was quite high — but 47% reported feeling “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable referring to people by using non-binary pronouns. Of note that the responses were divided along party lines, with Democrats considerably more “comfortable” with using gender-neutral pronouns than Republicans (66% vs 32%).


“How To Use Gender-Neutral Language, And Why It’s Important To Try”, Kim Elsesser, Forbes, July 8, 2020 Kim Elsesser taught courses on gender for eight years at UCLA, has published in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and has discussed gender issues on Fox News, NPR and BBC. She is the author of a book titled “Sex and the Office”, which analyses some of the obstacles holding women back.

Gender-Neutral Pronouns Make Headlines”, ADT

“About one-in-five U.S. adults know someone who goes by a gender-neutral pronoun”, A.W. Geiger and Nikki Graf, Pew Research Center, September 5, 2019

“Gender-neutral language in the European Parliament”, 2018

See also our other blog articles on gender issues:

Is there a connection between student reading scores and the STEM gender gap?

Non-binary” measures of sex/gender in surveys

Gender bias in machine translation

New trends in testing: A levels go gender neutral

Do the footprints of stereotyping and gender bias follow us in online environments?

Photo credit: Pisana Ferrari, mural art in Amman, Jordan