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But, gender roles have long been outdated and don't accurately represent the vast spectrum of identities or sexes that exist.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!
Many factors contribute to a hostile work environment including, office gossip, sexually- and culturally-offensive behavior and conduct that is NSFW. But to add to that list is another — often overlooked — contributor: the passive-aggressive email. You know, the suggestive ones that say one thing but really mean another?
If you want to be seen as professional as work, then you're going to want to avoid using these 10 email phrases. We've even listed some alternatives for each!
10 unprofessional email phrases
1. "I'm re-attaching for convenience"
This phrase basically translates to, "I know you ignored it the first time, so I'm going to send it again to hold you accountable for actually opening it." Unless you're someone's boss or manager, you probably shouldn't convey this passive-aggression in writing. And even if you are, a simple "I can send it again if you'd like" would be a more sensible response.
If the goal is to get recipients to open a document, then a better way to say this is, "Did you have a chance to look at the attachment?" This alternative reminds recipients to open the attachment and moves the conversation forward with a response.
2. "My apologies for the delay"
If you write this in an email, you might as well say, "Hey, I'm sorry I'm late. I was busy prioritizing other tasks. Here's that thing you've been waiting for." While you should take responsibility for your lateness, a professional apology is better received in a face-to-face exchange or through changed behavior.
If you find yourself in this situation, try adding this to your email: "I realize that to successfully carry out projects such as this, timely participation is required from all parties. You can expect my response to come sooner in the future."
3. "As per my last email"
Bets are you've probably used this line before — I know I have. But what you're really saying when you plug this into your email is, "This is the second time I'm telling you this. I don't want to have to tell you again." And let's be honest here — it sounds kind of snooty, too.
Instead of referring to your last email passive-aggressively, just say whatever needs to be said a second time to save everyone the archival search.
4. "Does Wednesday still work as a deadline? No worries if it doesn't!"
This phrase sounds friendly, right? But the problem is it's too friendly. You're basically communicating one of two things in your email: "You haven't confirmed a deadline with me so I'll need to figure this out on my own if you don't respond" or "You've already confirmed this deadline with me, but I don't trust that you'll have it in time, so let me know if I should just do this myself."
There's no point in taking responsibility for a task that isn't yours, and no reason to stall a project because of your passivity. A better — and simpler — way to say this is, "I look forward to reconnecting on Wednesday!"
5. "I feel like"
"I feel like" is a filler phrase. It pads your thoughts with uncertainty and allows receivers to negotiate them. Take, for example, the difference between, "I feel like we should wait until next week to decide" in comparison to "Let's wait until next week to decide." The former opens up the floor for feelings while the latter confidently pushes the conversation forward. The second phrase invites less pushback or a more constructive alternative than the suggestion.
6. "Just a heads up, I won't be coming in tomorrow"
Whether you have unlimited PTO or a set amount of sick days, it's best not to call off exclusively via email if you can help it. Not only is it unprofessional to plug the mention in an un-related email, but it's also inconsiderate to your manager and team who may need to follow-up with you in the following days or will have to take over your time-sensitive responsibilities.
Make the ask in person, as soon as you know need to take off, or compose a new email requesting the day off to your manager.
7. "I'm not in charge of that"
Nothing tells your manager you're uninvested in your team louder than this classic "That's not my job" plug-in. Even if you're "not in charge of that," you shouldn't throw the person who is under the bus in front of your team. Also, this email phrase is only used when a job that needs to get done hasn't been so a better way to say this is, "I can't speak to that, as I wasn't assigned to the project, but maybe X can!"
8. "Here's a copy of the project my team and I are working on. I'd love to get your feedback!"
To put it plainly, you never want to share teamwork with other members of the company without your team's permission. Some documents may contain confidential or incomplete information, and shouldn't be seen by anyone who isn't assigned to working on it. What you should do if you're interested in cross-functional collaboration is talk to your team about who's insight will help improve the project, then make a group agreement to send.
9. "Great work! Next time, you should"
This phrase, though positive, is a pretty back-handed compliment. You're basically telling recipients, "This is great — except for X, Y and Z — so actually, this is just good." It's better to share with email recipients what was effective about their work and what could be improved for future projects. Here's an example: "What a wonderful proposal! Your tone came across as friendly and assertive, and I found your calls to action especially effective because they made me want to click. Toward the end, you mention X, Y, Z and I was a little unclear about what you meant. Is there any way we can be more specific?"
In this example, the email sender is outlining the "great" parts about the proposal and letting them know what worked about them. They also use "I" statements (so as not to point a finger at the writer, but the reader) to demonstrate their confusion about a particular section. Then, they end with a question that gives the receiver a clear next step.
10. "I can't stand this place"
Maybe you can't stand your job, or your coworkers, or your company — but that's nothing to mention in a professional piece of writing. Statements such as this one can get in front of the wrong eyes, or easily be forwarded to leadership without your knowing. Air out your dirty laundry outside of the office through words, not in any way that can be directed back to you. And even better, you can escalate your concerns to leadership to get clear about what's not working for you and find solutions to address them.
How do you respond to an unprofessional email?
If you're on the receiving end of any one of these phrases, the best way to respond is with professionalism — this means leaving your assumptions and emotions out of it. Respond simply by sticking to the facts and/or asking the sender for more information in applicable cases.
How do you write a passive-aggressive email?
You don't! Passive-aggression has no place in the workplace. To send an assertive email that kindly and effectively communicates your point, make a clear ask, set clear deadlines or offer to follow-up with your coworker in person.
What is a professional clap-back?
Passive aggression creates hostility which can be sensed by the receiver. This leaves room for a "professional clap-back" — that is, an even more cheeky response to a critical statement. An example of that looks like the following:
Passive-aggressive sender: "As per my last email, we'd really appreciate it if you could get to those before the end of the week — ideally tomorrow."
Professional clap-backer: "Or, you could send this to the development team as I think this ask would be more appropriate of them to complete."
Notice how the clap-backer basically just said "Now I'm not going to do it," "That's not my job" and implied "I'm done talking about this" in a sarcastic tone. To avoid a professional clap back, which is just as discouraged as a passive-aggressive email, opt for clear and polite language with coworkers and colleagues. Avoiding the 10 phrases above is the best place to start!