By Riteba McCallum
There are many women who don’t mind the generic use of masculine pronouns and words like “mankind” as a default. After all, laws that use “he” still protect their rights, and words like “fireman” and “mailman” don’t actually prevent women from entering these professions. Sure, these words reflect a sexist past, but we’re talking about women’s rights today. As long as we have (or fight for) equality in practice, who cares about political correctness?
Well, it turns out that words matter. If you’re a linguist like me, you probably know this intuitively already, but it’s also backed by science. Cognitive scientists like Lera Boroditsky have shown that language can shape the way we think, and many studies suggest that the use of gender-inclusive language has a real-world effect on people’s biases and behaviours.
It works both ways. Language shapes the way we think, and the way we think shapes our language. Much of gendered language developed as a reflection of society’s (now archaic) views on gender. Only men were really seen to have full personhood, so it’s natural that the word “man” came to be used as a stand-in for “person.” Likewise, the construction “men and women” became vastly more popular than “women and men” because the convention is to list the more relevant party first. A study on how people use phrases that join two gendered words (like “men and women” or “mothers and fathers”) found that women are more likely to be listed first in contexts related to family or school than in a business context, implying that women are more relevant in the home than in the workplace.
When we continue to use sexist language, we unconsciously reinforce the sexist stereotypes behind it despite our best intentions. Even when everyone knows that you don’t mean to imply that women belong in the kitchen, this kind of language can have a negative effect. Another study, for example, showed that the use of the generic “he” in a job posting made women candidates feel less included in that professional environment and less motivated to pursue the job, compared to a posting for the same job that used gender-inclusive terms, even though the women knew that “he” was meant to include them.
This is where it gets really interesting. A recent study on hen, the Swedish language’s gender-neutral pronoun, found that use of this new pronoun reduced mental biases that favour men and boosted positive feelings towards women and LGBT people.
The study split participants into three groups, gave them a drawing of a stick figure walking a dog, and told them to write a short story about it. One group was instructed to use hen, another han (he), and the third hon (she). The researchers then asked participants to write a short story about a person running for political office (no instructions on which pronouns to use this time). Lastly, participants answered questions regarding their views on women and LGBT people.
What they found is that the participants who had been instructed to use hen in the first exercise were more likely to think of the political candidate as non-male and expressed more positive views towards LGBT people.
Now that you’re thoroughly convinced of the need to ditch old linguistic habits, here are some tips to help make your writing gender-inclusive that aren’t just using “he or she.” “He or she” works well in some cases, but often it’s clunky and it excludes non-binary people.
Instead of “A good student always does his homework,” write “Good students always do their homework.”
Instead of “The general manager is responsible for operations. His main tasks include…,” write “The general manager is responsible for operations. The incumbent’s main tasks include…”
Instead of “If a student hasn’t done his homework,” write “If a student hasn’t done the homework.”
Most people do this when talking. It’s best reserved for less formal texts, although it’s also used in legal texts for singular indefinite nouns.
Instead of “chairman,” write “chairperson.” Can’t think of an alternative? You can find a fairly comprehensive list of gender-neutral words here.