Why we need to include inclusive language

Using gender-neutral and inclusive language can help avoid gender stereotyping and sexism

Published - December 24, 2022 12:18 pm IST

There is a need to gender-neutral and inclusive language in academia

There is a need to gender-neutral and inclusive language in academia | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Recently, the Cambridge Dictionary revised the definition of “man” and “woman”. The updated definitions are: Man: An adult who lives and identifies as a male though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth. Woman: An adult who lives and identifies as a female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.

The Dictionary stated that the change was made to include everyone, regardless of their gender at the time of birth. Activists lauded the move but conservatives expressed their displeasure and anger on social media. Political commentator Steven Crowder tweeted: “The Cambridge Dictionary just changed the definition of “woman.” Remember, if you can control the language, you can control the population.”  The way we define words reveals our attitude towards people and reflects our interpretation of society. 

Multiple expressions

Traditionally, people have been taught and programmed to believe that there are only two gender identities: male and female. But, now, we have a different concept that is not limited to just two and includes a person’s biological sex, gender identity and gender expression. Many people identify themselves as non-binary, genderqueer, agender, or gender-no-conforming.  In this context, it is important to recognise the diversity of gender identities and use inclusive language.  Of late, activists across the globe have been highlighting the need to fight linguistic sexism and reform the language.  

Linguistic sexism and gender stereotypes are prevalent in textbooks and media content.  Our language reveals our attitude towards people and reflects our interpretation of our society. For example, if we refer to a doctor or a scientist as a male and a nurse or a typist as a female, we assume and imply that only men become doctors and scientists and only women become nurses and typists.  This is how gender stereotypes are being perpetuated.  

How gender-sensitive are our educators, journalists, policymakers, and students?  Do they know the importance of using gender-sensitive language? Unfortunately, the answer is in the negative. Many media outlets across the globe make a conscious effort to use gender-neutral language in order to be more inclusive, but those in India do not seem to be aware of the need to do so.  Using gendered language is still prevalent in academia and media in India as is including gender in job titles. Here are some recent examples: “BJP spokesman Altaf Thakur expressed concern over the blog linked to The Resistance Front…” or “Industrialist Ratan Tata needs no introduction. The 84-year-old businessman and Tata Sons Chairman Emeritus is a celebrated man and is revered not just in India …” The terms ‘spokesman’, ‘chairman’ and ‘businessman’ are sexist and should be replaced by ‘spokesperson’, ‘chairperson’ and ‘businessperson’.     

Why should educators encourage students to use non-gendered language? There are many words and phrases in English that are exclusionary, and using these perpetuates gender stereotypes. A few weeks ago, during an ELT workshop, I asked participants, a few questions related to male firstness, the nomenclature of degrees, and epicene pronouns. No one was familiar with such terms, gendered language or linguistic sexism. Educators should look at gender stereotypes and gendered language critically and encourage students to discuss the issues listed below in the class.  

Male firstness is the practice of ordering masculine terms before feminine terms.  For example: Adam and Eve, boys and girls, men and women, sons and daughters…  This implies that men are superior to women and reveal our gender bias.  What is the impact of ‘male firstness’ in our thinking and behaviour?

The degrees we receive from universities have nomenclatures such as Bachelor’s or Master’s. Is it fair to have such male-oriented titles? Are these titles acceptable to female and non-binary students?  

Linguistic reforms

Is the sentence “Everyone loves their pet” grammatically correct? Yes. While traditional grammarians would prefer “his/her” or “his” instead of “their”, those who are against linguistic sexism would prefer “their”. The singular “they” became so popular that the American Dialect Society voted for it as the Word of the Year for 2015.   

While chatting with ChatGPT, a new Artificial Intelligence chatbot programmed by OpenAI, I asked: “Who is a doctor?”. It replied, “A doctor is a person who is trained and qualified to practice medicine. They are licensed by the medical board in their state to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries…’.  Here, “they” is a gender-neutral singular pronoun and the chatbot has been programmed to use such terms.       

The pronoun “themself” is used instead of ‘himself’ or ‘herself’ to refer to a person whose gender identity does not correspond to the traditional binary opposition of male and female. Here is an authentic example of the use of ‘themself’ from fox19.com:  “An elementary student was rushed for medical treatment after poking themself with a syringe they found during recess, according to Cincinnati Public Schools officials.” However, it is seldom used by media persons and academics in India.  Probably, they are not aware of the existence of the term or are reluctant to use it. 

Using non-gendered language respects people of all genders and promote inclusivity. It is important to raise awareness among teachers of English and other educators about the need for identifying discriminatory language and using gender-neutral language and to encourage students to use inclusive language.  The teaching of inclusive language should be an important aspect of the English classroom.   

The writer is an education columnist and media critic. rayanal@yahoo.co.uk

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