Recently ESPN announced changing to gender-neutral words such as “Batter” instead of “Batsman”. While it was broadly appreciated, some people, including journalists, made fun of it.
But personally, it made an impact on me. Though I was aware of the issue for many years now, I never took it seriously. But after ESPN’s move, I became more conscious about usage of such words in my daily life. For example, I avoid using the word “guys” casually, especially when we have a female in the conversation. I haven’t been able to fully eliminate it per se. But when I use it even by slip of tongue, I realize my mistake. Instead, I use the word “people” which I believe is casual and definitely gender-neutral.
Gradually, I started looking for these gender-specific language everywhere, from news articles to the books I read and WhatsApp messages.
I felt I am going overboard, but then, that is how I have been. When I was reviewing content as part of my job, I was also looking for language issues in movie taglines and pamphlets advertising local computer training center.
Gender-neutrality in Government Legislations
When I was going through some Government Acts and Rules recently, I noticed how even the ones which were framed in recent years use masculine gender for pronouns.
So, over the weekend, I decided to check similar documents of other countries. The countries I chose rank among the Top 5 in Economic Participation and Opportunity and Educational Attainment subindexes of The Global Gender Gap Report 2020, published by World Economic Forum.
Australia is among the countries that rank no.1 in the report.
Australia’s Education Act uses “he or she” thrice. But it mostly sticks to nouns such as “Minister”, “Secretary”, “Internal reviewer” and in some cases gender-neutral words such as “Chair”.
Australia’s Corporations Act uses to similar approach. Only addition is it uses “chairperson” in some places.
Most of the Acts in Austria are in German language. I could only get Trade Act in English.
This document uses “he or she” thrice. The gender-neutral term “chairperson” and the gender-specific “chairman” is used once. Otherwise, it mostly sticks to nouns such as “Director” or “member”.
However it is important to note that Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research of Austria has mandated all staff to use gender-neutral language in their communications and has issued a guideline in this regard. It is in German though.
Bahamas’ Education Act uses only the “he” pronoun for Minister, pupil, parent, etc. It also uses other male-specific terms such as “chairman”.
Bahamas’ Companies Act also follows the same approach for Registrar, Member, Shareholder, etc. However, at the very beginning of the Act, there is a declaration that any references to masculine gender includes females. No such statement in Education Act.
Iceland ranks no. 2 in Economic Participation and Opportunity index in the report.
Iceland’s Education Grants Act gets overenthusiastic and uses “her/his”. It also uses gender-neutral terms such as “chair”, “headteacher”, etc.
Iceland’s Act for Public Limited Companies has “he” for Minister, founder, subscriber, shareholder, etc. It also has “chairman”. The Industry Act goes even further. It has “Master” to denote the person who is supposed to ensure that all work is properly discharged. Say hello to slavery.
Can’t miss, right?
The much-in-news New Education Policy, 2020 sticks to nouns.
The Companies Act 2013 has “chairman”, “he”, etc.
The National Institutes of Food Technology, Entrepreneurship And Management Act, 2021 seems to be totally confused. It uses the gender-neutral term “Chairperson” and the masculine gender term “him” in the same sentence.
So, what is the point?
Well, it is simple.
Governments must start using gender-neutral language. Having “he or she” is just monkey-balancing. Using “Her/his” is pretentious. Declarations of masculine gender references including female is laughable.
The usage should extend beyond nouns and pronouns to all the sexist terms and phrases, and sooner to all discriminatory terms such as “blacklist” and “whitelist”.
While that happens, we, as individuals, should make deliberate effort to use gender-neutral and non-discriminatory language in our day-to-day communication. It may sound awkward, funny, or even ridiculous as some people observed. But I firmly believe that it is definitely needed.
Gender-neutral words in Regional Languages
My native language (yes, not mother tongue) is Kannada, a regional language in India. I am unable to find gender-neutral alternatives for many words here. Linguists and those interested in language should make efforts to create/find and promote usage of such words.
We can always argue that there are more critical issues in gender inequality (or inequality in general) to deal with than this. Indeed, there are and there will be. But that does not mean we should ignore this. I will continue my effort to use the noun forms, plural forms, etc., instead of words that denote a specific gender at least in English. I will continue my search for gender-neutral words in my native language.
I hope someday this becomes the norm.