Language is a uniquely human phenomenon: we use it not only to communicate but to individualize our own quirky personalities. And the influence runs both ways--studies have shown that the language we use also shapes the way we see the world. Take gender, for example. Which came first--our need to slot everything into a binary, or our obsessive tendency to classify our world as either female or male, girl or boy, feminine or masculine, with no leeway in between?
The truth is that our fixation on gendering is often irrelevant at best. If anything, our loaded vocabulary instead further cements our traditional expectations of women and men, as well as excluding trans and queer folks who live partly or wholly beyond the gender binary. If we want to bridge the gender gap, the first step is to de-gender our language. Here are a few places to start:
1. Identifying unborn babies
We gender our little ones even before they’ve emerged into the binary-heavy world! When we “learn the gender” of an unborn baby, we’re just being shown a sonogram which indicates certain anatomical distinctions. Instead of letting that sonogram inform a whole slew of gender-specific preparations (such as clothes, furniture, decor, and more), we can discuss this child neutrally and allow them to mature into whatever identity feels right to them.
2. Labeling parents
Often when we speak of parents, we use the terms “mom and dad” or “mother and father”--which doesn’t quite fit the bill for parenting teams composed of something other than than exactly one man and one woman. “Parent” (or “parents”) gets the job done: it includes moms, dads, and everyone in between.
3. Referring to professions
Why do women earn less than their male counterparts in performing the same jobs? Well, there are a lot of reasons for that, but it probably doesn’t help that we distinguish stewardesses from stewards or actresses from actors. You can find a neutral name for every job--try police officer instead of policeman, for example, or server instead of waitress.
4. Addressing strangers directly
To interact politely with a stranger, we often append our phrases with “madam” or “sir.” However, you can’t be certain of a stranger’s gender identity unless they tell you directly--no matter how they dress or what’s written on their name tag. Simply forgo the gender assumptions completely in your conversation. If you want to convey particular respect for someone, try doing it with a smile.
5. Referring to strangers in a story
If you’re telling a friend (or your diary) about the clerk at the movie theater or the bartender at the club, just remember that--unless this person told you directly--you probably don’t know how they identify. For this reason, you should use gender-neutral pronouns when referencing someone you don’t know in a story.
6. Addressing groups of people
We’ve all used the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen!” to get the attention of a large group of people. Trouble is, your addressees may not identify as either ladies or gentlemen. Using “all” or “everyone” ensures that you’re including the entirety of your audience. In a similar vein, “you guys” dominates the plural second person in English nowadays; try replacing it with “you all,” “y’all,” “all y’all,” or “everybody” to encompass the whole group! Even if everyone you’re addressing does identify en masse as female or male, get in the habit of abstaining from forms of address like “girls,” “ladies,” “guys,” “boys,” etc.
The more we de-gender our language, the more we recognize each other as humans sharing the world and the experience of life together. If we can recognize our common ground, we can begin to empathize with one another; see ourselves in each other; and drag ourselves just a tad closer to our common goal of equality across all genders.