Organisations who wish to communicate in an inclusive manner will inevitably one day ponder the use of gender-neutral writing. At Cartoonbase, we have been no exception. In all our projects, it goes without saying, we adopt the views and opinions of our clients and their audiences.
But when it comes to our own external communications?
To be very transparent, we couldn’t quite reach a consensus. Especially when it came to the use of gender-neutral writing in French. As far as English was concerned, we found more common ground. And yet one key issue remained: we were not able to determine to what extent drawing up a list of terms or expressions to be used in all written pieces, without allowing a case-by-case approach, would go against our beliefs. There is one fundamental point on which we all agree: inclusion is what we stand for. But how inclusive would it be to exclude conflicting views on the matter?
Here’s a look back at our internal discussions.
What is gender-neutral writing?
To begin with, what is gender-neutral writing? Inclusive writing aims to be respectful of all individuals and groups by avoiding language that might be considered marginalising, stereotyping, or discriminatory. As a sub-category of inclusive writing, gender-neutral writing aims to avoid bias towards any particular gender and to represent men, women, and non-binary individuals fairly and equitably in written language.
Thank you ChatGPT. Now, back to us.
Given that we have addressed inclusive writing in length in our Inclusivity Toolkit, let’s focus specifically on gender-neutral writing.
Why a debate around gender-neutral writing?
Why is gender-neutral writing debated? Traditional English often uses masculine pronouns and descriptors when the gender of the subject is unknown or when describing roles traditionally occupied by men.
- When a passenger loses his bag, he should report to the appropriate counter.
- When the fire broke, the neighbour immediately called the firemen.
This practice can perpetuate gender stereotypes and overlook other gender identities.
According to its advocates, gender-neutral writing serves the purpose of increasing the visibility of these identities in written and spoken communications to ultimately increase their visibility in society.
On the detractors’ side, on the other hand, the arguments are less homogeneous.
Let’s consider the arguments of those who firmly believe that all gender identities should be equally represented in society, but don’t think gender-neutral writing is the way to go. (The others, unfortunately, will remain steadfast in their views, however persuasive the arguments challenging their position may be.)
- Gender-neutral writing can make learning English more difficult, for school-aged children, for people suffering from a learning disability, and for non-native speakers. For instance, gender-neutral writing requires, when using the pronoun “they” to refer to an individual, that the verb be conjugated in the third-person singular. This non-standard use of grammar has the potential to complicate matters for those for whom the path is already anything but straightforward.
- Gender-neutral writing can be exclusive, for example of non-binary identities. Using the pronouns “he/she” together, when the gender of the subject is not specified, ultimately leaves all those who do not refer to themselves as “he” or “she”. What is more, this option emphasises a difference between genders that doesn’t always serve the cause of inclusion.
- Gender-neutral writing tends to take centre stage in written texts. When gender isn’t central to the message, emphasising it might divert attention from the primary purpose of the communication.
- Gender-neutral writing introduces neologisms that make the English language more difficult to comprehend and use. For example, terms like “Mx” (an alternative to Mr., Mrs., or Ms. that doesn’t indicate gender) and “Latinx” (a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American descent, rather than Latina or Latino) add layers of complexity to the language.
Given the importance of the debate on gender-neutral writing in the media and public discourse, we highly recommend examining the issue in depth and taking a stand. Why? Because, the choices you make regarding the use of gender-neutral writing will inevitably be seen as a reflection of your views. In other words, if you choose not to use gender-neutral language, some may interpret this as opposition to the idea of inclusion itself. And very often, you won’t get the opportunity to elaborate on your thinking.
So, how can you determine the form of communication that works best for you? Consider asking:
- Who is the target audience?
- What do we do about their challenges or sensitivities? Could we include them in the conversation for better understanding?
- What are the key goals of this piece of communication?
- Where do you stand on the issues currently being debated? And what does that mean for your communication choices?
- In the context, is it important to remove any ambiguity about your intentions?
These questions can serve as a guide, helping you decide whether gender-neutral language aligns with your messaging needs. And remember, the answers might differ depending on the context or individual involved.
Tips and tricks
If you choose to adopt gender-neutral language, you may like to consider the following practices.
Pronouns and possessives
English pronouns and possessives (he/she and her/his) are gender-specific and binary in their singular form. Unlike Latin languages, English has the advantage of having a gender-neutral pronoun and possessive in the plural: they and their.
Gender inclusion can be easily achieved by using a plural possessive with a singular pronoun:
- When a passenger loses their bag, they should report to the appropriate counter.
(Do you hear them teeth grinding?)
Or using the plural altogether:
- Passengers who lose their bags should report to the appropriate counter.
Another inclusive – yet binary – option would be pairing the masculine and feminine:
- When a passenger loses his/her bag, he/she should report to the appropriate counter.
With an alternation between masculine and feminine throughout the text. We advise, however, not to overuse this strategy, as it may distract the reader and/or create inconsistencies in the text.
A third strategy is the use of the passive voice:
- When a bag is lost, passengers should report to the appropriate counter.
To replace nouns starting with man-, like mankind or man-made, you could use humankind, humanity and artificial or human-caused.
Similarly, nouns ending with -man have gender-neutral equivalents, such as firefighter for fireman/firewoman, police officer for policeman/policewoman, chair/chairperson for chairman, spokesperson for spokesman.
Forms of address
Sir or Madam? When uncertain about someone’s preference, use neutral forms of address. To Whom It May Concern works well in formal contexts.
Ms or Mrs? Priority is given to Ms rather than Mrs or Miss. Ms can refer to any woman, regardless of her marital status, and its use eliminates a distinction that does not exist on the male side.
A case-by-case approach
Deciding on a wording or rule to apply in all internal and/or external communications requires yet more careful thought and consultation. We encourage you to consider where you stand as a team or a company and to explore the options available, even if you are unable to reach a consensus.
As to us? As a communications agency, we tailor our approach to the preferences and priorities of our clients and their audiences. But when speaking on behalf of Cartoonbase, it is the views of our team and audience that guide our language choices. Our discussions led us to the conclusion that the most inclusive approach to gender-neutral writing was ultimately the one that offered the greatest choice of means to serve our common objective: inclusion.
But we are also here to help.
Is there a project in the pipeline you would like to discuss with us? Are you looking for advice on how to make your material more inclusive? Don’t hesitate to contact us, we’d love to meet you.