How gender-neutral and non-sexist is your language?
Dr Albert P’Rayan
Published: 18th March 2013 12:00 AM
Last Updated: 17th March 2013 12:31 PM
In last week’s column, I discussed the need for using politically correct expressions and listed some politically incorrect words and phrases and their politically correct or acceptable alternatives.
This week’s column is on gender-neutral language. What is gender-neutral language? Let me explain the term by giving examples of expressions which are seen as gender-specific and sexist, which are the opposites of gender-neutral and non-sexist. Look at these sentences:
• A doctor must have a degree in medicine and he must also have a valid license to practise.
• A nurse is a woman who has a diploma or degree in nursing.
• A meeting of chairmen of engineering colleges has been scheduled for April 13.
Let’s analyse the three sentences. The first sentence is grammatically correct but feminists will brand it sexist as it implies that a doctor is always male. It is not true. In our society the percentage of female doctors is almost the same as that of male doctors. In the past, in many male-chauvinistic societies women were treated inferior to men and were not allowed to choose their career. As a result, people were forced to think that only men were capable of becoming physicians. The sentence is a clear example of sexist language. Advocates of non-sexist language or gender-neutral language say that it is important to break stereotypes and use “language which implicitly or explicitly includes both men and women, making no distinction between the genders”. According to feminists, sexist language “contributes to an assumption that maleness is ‘standard’ and that femaleness is ‘different’” and is misogynistic.
The first sexist sentence can be made non-sexist in two different ways:
• A doctor must have a degree in medicine and he/she must also have a valid license to practise.
• A doctor must have a degree in medicine and they must also have a valid license to practice.
Though the first alternative term he/she conveys the message clearly, it will sound boring if we use it throughout a piece of writing. The second alternative they, which is a plural pronoun, can be used as a singular gender-neutral pronoun and it is quite acceptable in modern English.
The second sentence implies that all nurses are female. There are male as well as female nurses. The sentence can be made non-sexist by using the term ‘person’ in the place of ‘woman’.
• A nurse is a person who has a diploma or degree in nursing.
In the third sentence, the term ‘chairmen’ is sexist as the sentence implies only men are owners of engineering colleges. The alternative acceptable term is chairpersons.
Here are more examples of sentences with gender-neutral (gender-free) pronouns:
• A service engineer will come to your house. Ask them to give you the code which has been sent to your phone through SMS.
• A customer should contact the customer care if they have any complaint.
• A teacher should constantly check whether they have updated their knowledge and skills.
• Meet any professor and get their guidance.
In the examples listed above, the gender of the subjects is not specified and therefore gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, their) are used.