IT can sometimes feel like everything you say is the wrong thing these days, especially when it comes to topics such as gender and sexuality. While many people choose to just avoid such conversations altogether, unless they are around folks who 'know what they mean', silence is not always an option. Whether it's your personal or professional life, people will be interested in your thoughts and positions on certain issues, and you do not want your message to get lost in translation.
Gender-inclusive language is also critical when it comes to laws and policies that govern institutions such as schools, workplaces, and social infrastructure, as a lack thereof can lead to the further exclusion of already marginalised groups, and further stereotypes about genders and their roles.
Whether you're sending an important e-mail at work, talking to your friends, or just trying your best not to get dragged on Twitter, here are a few tips that you can use to be more sensitive and inclusive of all genders and identities in your communication. You may not always get it right, and the rules can sometimes be subjective, but with practice, you can get it right most times.
Use woman as a noun, female as an adjective
Many people truly see no difference in using either female or woman, but the crux of the debate is that the term 'female' can be used to refer to any species that is capable of reproducing, and thus strips the woman of her humanity to address her as such. So, instead of saying, “The room is full of females,” say “The room is full of women.” Female is a more ideal as an adjective, as it can be used to differentiate when describing non-gender-specific nouns. For example, you may say, “The female students,” or “The female doctors.”
Don't assume a gender based on a job
Usually it's assumed that men are the ones holding most positions, especially those in leadership. For example, many people still write to the media and begin “Dear Sirs”, as the traditional assumption is that all editors are men. And don't be surprised if you see a woman working on a site that says “Men at work”. It's 2021. All nurses are not women. All leaders are not men.
Avoid using gender-biased stereotypes
With women being professionals in fields such as boxing, wrestling, and karate, saying something such as, “He fights like a girl,” might not be quite the insult you think it is to that man who can't fight.
Avoid using gendered words
While it is generally accepted to use the male term to classify the entire group, or when describing no one in particular, it is not very gender-sensitive. For example, you may want to substitute 'mankind' with 'humans' and 'man-made' with 'artificial'.
Similarly, instead of saying, “If a driver turns left here, he will crash,” it is better to say, “If a driver turns left here, she or he will crash.” You may also pluralise the sentence instead. That is, “If drivers turn here, they will crash.”
If someone identifies as a gender, use it
If you can appreciate that gender is a social construct, which may or may not relate to someone's biological sex, then you can understand why there are discussions about what gender someone identifies as. While it may take a little getting used to, a general rule of thumb is to try to avoid gendering people unless you have to. For example, you may see a term like “people with vaginas” instead of “women”, since all people with vaginas may not identify as women. When speaking of specific individuals, it is generally harmless to use the seemingly obvious gendered pronouns (he, she, her, his) if you must, but if you know their preferred choice, use that instead. Also, it doesn't hurt to ask.
Here are a few gender-related terms you might want to familiarise yourself with:
Cisgender: Someone whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex. That is, someone born with a penis who identifies as a man and has sex with only women is a cisgender heterosexual (cishet) man.
Transgender: Someone whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. This person may or may not have had surgery or body modification done.
Non-binary: Someone who does not identify as either a man or a woman, or solely as one of those two genders.
Gender fluid: Someone whose gender identity varies over time.