Gender binaries can be found all around us from the restrooms we use to the boy and girl toy aisles at our go-to superstores. Every time we walk through those stalls or stroll down those aisles, we reinforce our gender identities or the identities of those closest to us with team pink or team blue.
But the gender spectrum doesn't work that way, and there's a plethora of identities that aren't being accounted for in these distinctions. That's why gender neutral language is central to establishing authentic and inclusive relationships with ourselves and others.
Most times, we're unaware of how we impose or reinforce gender stereotypes in our language. Therefore, we created this guide to help you adopt truly inclusive terms in your everyday speech.
Raising awareness around gendered language
Gendered language refers to a body of words that use masculine and/or feminine nouns and pronouns to refer to subjects. Gendered language is also widely used to refer to whole groups that don't primarily contain men.
An example is Neil Armstrong's famous quote, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," which uses the terms "man" and "mankind" to refer to all humans, regardless of gender or biological sex.
Gendered language also exists in career-related discourses, such as the terms "congresswoman" or "congressman" which simultaneously assign a gender and job role to a member of congress. Even honorifics are gendered, revealing a person's biological sex and, for women, their marital status (take Ms. and Mrs., for example).
Gendered career-related nouns (and gender-neutral alternatives!)
Below is a list of common gendered nouns and a list of gender-neutral alternatives you can refer to in career-related discourses:
|Gendered noun||Gender-neutral noun|
|businesswoman, businessman||business person|
|chairwoman, chairman||chair, head|
|congresswoman, congressman||member of congress|
|mailman||mail carrier, postal worker|
|saleswoman, salesman||salesperson, sales attendant|
|stewardess, steward||flight attendant|
Let’s talk about pronouns
A pronoun is a word that refers to a noun and functions as a substitute for its name. An individual can use a pronoun in place of their name or pronouns can be used in reference to another person, place or thing. Gendered pronouns include she (her, hers) and he (him, his) and have traditionally been assigned at birth to correspond with the female or male anatomy.
But, gender roles have long been outdated and don't accurately represent the vast spectrum of identities or sexes that exist. Gender-neutral pronouns, which include ze (hir, hirs) and they (them, theirs), broaden the scope for how we understand our identities, how we express ourselves and how we speak about gender and sexuality.
Below is a table of gendered and gender-neutral pronouns for reference. This is not an exhaustive list, but instead, a compilation of the most common pronouns:
10 gender-neutral terms to add to your vocabulary
You've probably heard of most of these, so with a little more practice, your integration of the following terms can go a long way:
In place of "mankind," which defaults to men and the male binary, "humankind" encompasses everyone — women, theydies, gentlethems and all the like.
2. Partner or significant other
Alternatives to the "girlfriend" and “boyfriend" labels are the terms "partner" and "significant other." These substitutes are inclusive of mates who don't identify with the male or female binaries, nor wish to disclose their sex as part of their romantic representation.
Instead of "Mr.," "Ms.," or "Mrs.," an individual can choose to identify with the honorific "Mx." By trading the gendered options for a neutral form, the addressor can still maintain professionalism without referencing marital status or gender.
4. First-year student
"Freshman" is a recycled term from the old days when only men could attend university. Now, the terms "first-year" or "first-year student" are more accurate references to all students in the youngest graduating class of an institution.
The term "man-made" is often used to mean "artificial" or "synthetic." Sometimes, it's also used incorrectly as many "man-made" items owe credit to machines or people who are not men... so there's that!
6. Parent, sibling and child
Rather than referring to immediate family members as "mother" and "father," or "son" and "daughter," you can use these gender-neutral alternatives. There's no love lost in removing gender from the equation with this one.
A "datemate" is a great way to refer to someone who you're dating or getting to know. Your datemate can surely be promoted to "partner" or "significant other" but the phrase is one way to keep things light for now.
It's customary to use the labels "grandmother" and "grandfather" to describe our parent's parents, but it isn't inclusive of our gender-neutral elders. Update the terms with the alternative, "grandy," which is arguably much cuter, anyway.
You can avoid perpetuating gender roles by integrating this common term into your language. This term refers to little "boys" and "girls" who don't yet have the awareness necessary to self-identify.
Synonymous to the status of "husband" and "wife" is the label "spouse" which can be used to describe the partner to whom you're wed. This term goes both ways, further establishing equality in your union with one another.
Though people are gendered in the English language, the language itself isn't grammatically-gendered since all nouns aren't subjected to this classification. Spanish, on the other hand, is gender-specific.
Words like pencil in English translate to "el lápiz" in Spanish. The article "el" technically — but not literally — classifies the pencil as masculine. Another example is the word table which translates to "la mesa" in Spanish and in English, the female or feminine table.
Other gendered languages include French, Arabic, Italian, Irish and Portuguese. On the latter, non-gendered languages include Armenian, Lao, Mongolian, Creole and Maori.
What to do if you’re not sure of someone’s gender
As intimidating as it may seem, asking someone their gender pronouns is the safest and most respectful way to go. The person at question will probably appreciate that you didn't assign them the incorrect gender or ask others before or instead of asking them.
You can simply say, "Can I ask, what are your preferred pronouns? Mine are [she/hers]" or something along those lines. By sharing your own preferred pronouns, you promote inclusivity and establish yourself as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community.
Sharing your gender with others
If you, yourself, are unsure of how to convey your pronoun of choice with others, you can be upfront about it — "My name is [Stephanie] and my pronouns are [she/her]." Or, you can take a subtler approach by adding your pronouns to your resume, CV or brief bios. That way, people can get the hint which saves everyone the small talk.
Show your pride and alliance this month by integrating these all-inclusive terms into your language. And remember, love is patient, love is kind and just like the terms above, it is universal. Happy Pride Month!