The Importance of Using Inclusive Language

Author: Nicola Howcraft

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I recently joined Newgen Publishing UK as the Deputy Team Leader for the Taylor & Francis team. Previously I worked for several years as a freelance copy-editor and proofreader and am a professional member of the CIEP. I studied foreign languages at university and have always been fascinated by the intricacies of language and how we use it to communicate.

What does "inclusive" mean? As a former copy-editor, my first port of call was, of course, the trusted Oxford English Dictionary. Here the term is defined as "deliberately avoiding usages that could be seen as excluding a particular social group". But what does this mean for our writing?

Essentially, it means that we should be writing in such a way that no one who reads what we write feels excluded from what we are discussing, either on account of their race, religion, or gender identity (on which I focus here). We want to be writing in such a way that everyone feels welcome and acknowledged. This is nothing more than a common courtesy. Unfortunately this attitude has, until relatively recently, been seen as the exception rather than the norm, and as the language we use has a strong basis in historical convention we do sometimes have to make a conscious effort to ensure that the language we are using does not inadvertently exclude others or cause hurt.

Consider the following terms that we have probably all used that reinforce unhelpful gender stereotypes:

  • freshman
  • policeman
  • mankind
  • chairman

Many of these terms have better, ungendered alternatives we can use instead: fresher, police officer, humankind, chairperson. But what do we do about gender-biased terms where we use one form or another to refer to a clearly defined male or female individual?

  • actor/actress
  • steward/stewardess
  • businessman/businesswoman
  • hero/heroine
  • god/goddess

Unfortunately, for most of these there is no alternative term in common use that does not clearly suggest one gender or another, and this is a problem. An actor is a male actor, an actress is a female one. How, then, do we refer inclusively to the transgender, gender-fluid or non-binary individual who fits this description? Are there other terms we can use to describe people in a way that is free from gender bias? Our language is constantly evolving. Perhaps we can start using the word “actor” to refer to all individuals that act professionally, and thus over time remove the gender bias from this term. The issue there is why we should automatically default to the “male” version of the word when looking for a more inclusive varient. Would it not be better to come up with a different term entirely, one that has no historical gender bias associated with it? In effect, we need to be “rewriting the dictionary”, and this is likely to take time.

However, there are a lot of things we can be doing now to ensure that our written and spoken language is as inclusive as possible. Here are a few examples.

Avoid using examples that reinforce gender stereotypes. This includes offering too many examples of, for example, a male politician, a male doctor, a female nurse, etc. If we do not do this in a balanced way, we are reinforcing the idea that these roles are more suited to one particular gender than another, unconsciously sidelining the many non-male politicians, non-male doctors and non-female nurses in the world. When we use examples in our writing that refer to specific, gendered individuals, we need to ensure that we are providing a balanced picture of individuals of all genders fulfilling these roles.

Avoid making assumptions about people’s gender based on their role. I once edited a book on psychotherapy where the unspecified “patient” was almost exclusively referred to with female pronouns (she/her) and the therapist with male pronouns (he/him), reinforcing the stereotype that therapists tend to be male and their patients – those requiring help – tend to be female. This only serves to marginalise non-male therapists and non-female psychotherapy patients, and is also an unhelpful way of depicting the therapist–patient relationship. If in your writing you are using case studies involving male therapists and female patients, for example, try to provide other examples for balance that involve other gender pairings, such as female therapists working with male patients or female therapists working with transgender patients.

Think carefully about how you refer to unspecified individuals. In recent decades, “he or she” or “s/he” have been used as acceptable ways for describing an unnamed, unspecified person, or what we might call the “generic individual”. More outdated is the practice of using “he/him” to refer to all generic individuals, and the use of this male-oriented catch-all is now widely discredited. But is it “he or she” even still fit for purpose? To be fully inclusive we should perhaps be using singular “they/them” pronouns to refer to people without making any reference to their gender at all. Many sources will still tell you that using “they” in the singular is ungrammatical, and the word “themself” is still given a squiggly red line by automatic spellcheckers. But I think we need to be asking ourselves which is more important: grammatical pedantry or honouring and respecting the feelings and rights of all individuals?

Avoid “othering” one group in particular. A jarring example of this, still employed by the UK’s most established broadcaster and news provider, is the practice of categorising sports stories as relating to “Football” or “Women’s Football”, and “Cricket” or “Women’s Cricket”. This clearly defines the male format of the sport as “the norm” and the female format as “the other”. In other sports in which women’s participation has typically received greater public attention, such as tennis, gymnastics and figure skating, such distinctions are not used. How can we expect today’s young women, or transgender individuals, to aspire to a career as a professional footballer or cricketer if the mainstream media are feeding them the narrative that such aspirations are abnormal?

Respect other people’s identities. It’s fair to say that there are a number of different terms that people use to define their gender identity – transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, to name a few – and what might be right for one individual may not be right for another. But we can ensure that we refer to everyone inclusively by respecting the terms that people choose to describe themselves and by making an effort to understand the meanings behind these terms and how they should be used. So if you are working with an individual who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, make sure that you always use these pronouns when referring to them.

Be an advocate of gender-inclusive language. In the Newgen Publishing UK office, many of our staff are now choosing to include their preferred gender pronouns at the end of their email signatures. This helps to normalise the practice for those whose preferred gender pronouns may not obviously match their given names. This is good practice anyway for people – like us – who work a lot with international partners, as it may not be obvious to others whether your given name is identified as “male” or “female” in your language or culture. Consider changing the language you use in everyday speech as well, such as referring to “all genders” rather than “both genders”.

Ultimately, we need to be mindful of the fact that the language we use is an incredibly powerful tool that has the power to either marginalise, exclude and cause pain, or to embrace, include and unite. We therefore need to make a conscious effort to use language in such a way that no one feels left out. Furthermore, let us remember that language is not bound by a rigid set of rules; it is fluid and constantly evolving, and only we have the power to change it.

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