Using Gender Neutral Language – a path to equality

In recent months I have been asked, in a variety of environments, why using non-gender neutral language is sexist. I thought it would be it worthwhile exploring this issue.

There are many major gender based inequality issues in our societies that need addressing: on the one hand there is rape and physical violence against women, trafficking and modern day slavery (though not always perpetrated against women), whilst on the other there is harassment, the lack of women’s promotional opportunities and the pay gap in the workplace. Whilst these are all very different, I suggest that they all figure on the same continuum and exist as historical reminder that women were, and still are in many cases, subjugated by men and more particularly the male dominated society in which we live. 


Equality legislation tells us that gender discrimination is illegal and, for in excess of forty years, has been making social change. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go to achieve full gender equality.rical reminder that women were, and still are in many cases, subjugated by men and more particularly the male dominated society in which we live.

Whether in the home, the workplace, the newspaper stand or on the street, most people would agree that there is not yet gender equality, despite the legislation that tells us men and women are equal. There are too many stories and statistics that prove otherwise.

What cannot be denied, is that the fact that in English at least, the language is far from gender neutral.

Generally in society we use “mankind” to describe all people on the planet or if particularised then they are likely to be “he”. Many organisations claim that “the use of the word he or him refers to both men and women”. Would they ever change to say that “she and her” will be used instead? I serious doubt it.

The dictionary offers other male phrases/words – “manmade fibre”, “man the door”, “man management” or “all men are born equal” – but they mean all people. Men seldom question them, for they are included, but do women all feel included – probably not. These phrases just epitomise how we talk from a male perspective and how the English language has grown up male orientated.

For many, the anomaly within our language is missed; it is a non-issue and has a minimal significance. However, perhaps it is worth exploring the use of sexist language a little further.

Clearly there is a raft of misogynistic words, I need not spell out, that are part of our language. For those of us with any aspiration of gender equality, I’m sure, would want to see these eradicated. There are many other words and phrases seen as less impactful. Perhaps though, it is these words that continue to reinforce sexist stereotypes within society: we use male generics continue to emphasise the maleness of our world and are invariably used to describe higher status positions too.

Language is perhaps as much of a driver for change as is legislation and social policy. Certainly this can be seen if we explore the changing attitudes during the past forty years towards race, disability and most recently sexuality. In terms of gender equality, we each have a part to play by taking responsibility for the words and language we use that perpetuate gender inequality.

So, we come back to the “why” of the initial question. And my answer may be considered somewhat contentious. The use of non-gender neutral language is part of the oppression against women and is on the same scale as harassment in the workplace, sexual assault, domestic violence and even rape.

If this is so, then perhaps by changing ourselves and the organisations we work for and represent may make our society safer and more comfortable for women.

About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
This entry was posted in beyond diversity, discrimination, Equality & Diversity, gender equality, human rights, management, Sexism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Using Gender Neutral Language – a path to equality

  1. Rose Rigby says:

    Thank you Micheal for raising this subject. I am one of many who was not in the slightest interested or consciously affected by gendered language, that is until I was referred to as a ‘Chairman’. This got me thinking (as well as a bit annoyed) and I started noticing it everywhere, politicians in the House of Commons referring to ‘business men’ TV commentators talking of ‘fire men’, even at a business event & listening to Dr King’s I have a dream speech – ‘all men are born equal’. This language totally excludes women, it makes no acknowledgement of the role women have in business, professions or even in the hard fought causes of civil rights. If people think otherwise, try reversing it (as you suggest) replace ‘men’ with ‘women’ in the descriptors used every day….and watch as men feel the discomfort of exclusion – especially in the work place. There is of course no need to gender base any words, and this is what I try to do every day (although even I with my awareness sometimes slip up! – It’s ingrained in us you see!) ‘Chair’ ‘business people’ ‘fire fighter’ ‘all people are born equal’ just replace ‘man’ with ‘people’ and be part of the change and ensure all your conversations are inclusive rather than excluding.

  2. John Dray says:

    Even the term ‘woman’ defines a female human being in terms of a male human being. To help, some people deliberately use newly made-up words to jolt thinking e.g. ‘herstory’ as opposed to ‘history’.
    We are where we are. It is up to us to choose where we journey to. To my mind, if a society only celebrates the achievements of one half of its population then it is lacking.

  3. equalityedge says:

    This message was sent to me and the sender asked to remain anonymous.

    Have you read any of Dale Spender’s early work, Michael? ‘Man Made Language’ is exactly what you’re talking about. There’s a short extract here:

    Lastly, the fire service abandoned the term ‘fireman’ in favour of ‘fire fighter’ years ago – pity the politicians and the rest of the population haven’t caught up yet. Which is why your blog post isn’t contentious in my book, it’s highlighting a valid anachronism.

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