Gender Benders in Writing – Why Words Matter

You’ve heard the expression that you are what you eat, but did you know you are also how you speak? For centuries, the English language used the term “man” to include all humanity. As more women have moved into the workforce, it has become customary to talk about men and women when a statement includes both. This enables women and girls to feel included in a speaker’s or writer’s audience. It can also keep you out of hot water.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has officially abandoned the term “manned space flight,” referring instead to “crewed missions” or other inclusive terminology. Still sometimes used are terms such as “manmade lake” or “man-hours” of work. There can be substitutes, such as “staff-hours,” or it may be a case of reworking a sentence. You don’t have to go from saying “man-made lake” to “human-built lake.” You can rephrase to talk about a “a lake local engineers built.”

Some of us struggle with the more encompassing choice of words. Others fight it, perhaps perceiving a threat of some sort. “So, am I supposed to say ‘person-hole cover?'” a reluctant convert might ask. Actually, “utility cover” works quite well, and is a more accurate description.

Are we talking about another form of political correctness here? No. The impact of the words we use and the images we convey are far more important. Not all biased terminology has the word “man” in it. Phrases such as “old wives’ tale” impart the idea that an anecdote relayed by a woman is frivolous or not to be believed. The message this conveys is stored by children – boys and girls – forming impressions about their roles in the world and the value of one anothers’ opinions.

A boss who plans to give something to “my girl” to type conveys a couple points. First, the secretary who will type the material is described with less professional courtesy than a male colleague. Second, the secretary is characterized as an appendage of her boss. She may do work he generates, but she brings her own talents to bear to accomplish it. Any diminutive terminology implies less value for the work of others. For example, to say you will have a report duplicated “by the boys in the copy room” diminishes their work as well.

Some phrases slight the role of men in society. A discussion of “motherly instincts” in child rearing implies that fathers are less nurturing parents than mothers. Other roles can become more powerful when described more specifically. A middleman becomes a broker or intermediary, for example.

A good rule of thumb is to use parallel references. If you talk about men, their counterparts are women, not ladies. The complement to gentlemen is lady. These two words are more a description of someone’s demeanor or behavior than a way to describe their gender. To refer to a professional woman as a “lady” is to imply that her conduct at work should be more genteel than that of her male colleagues. To call her a “lady lawyer” when you would refer to men as simply lawyers calls attention to her sex first and her work second.

On the other hand, the term “First Lady” will likely remain in place. It reflects the gracious social role of the wife of a president, and is a term used respectfully. It will be interesting to hear how we refer to the husband of the first female president!

Many words that end in “ess” were created to have a female counterpart for a male term. Though the Oscars still refer to actors and actresses, many women who act simply call them selves actors. A hostess acts as a host, why not call her one? Other words have evolved to new terminology all together. For example, people who assist you during airline flights are no longer stewardesses or stewards, they have become flight attendants.

Gender-neutral language is not about editing people’s private lives. Informal terminology remains and always will. Adults are likely to refer to the people they date as “girlfriends” or “boyfriends.” Some groups of friends refer to one another as “the girls” or “the boys.” If it works for you and your friends, so be it.

If you are in doubt as to how to refer to a colleague or whether a certain behavior will offend them, listen and ask. A postal employee is not likely to refer to herself as a “mail man.” She will call herself a letter carrier. When my mother returned to the workplace after nearly two decades at home with children, she was the first woman in management in her office. Just before National Secretaries Week, one of the men said they had been unsure whether to get her a corsage or not. Would she be offended by being the only woman not to get flowers? Mother said she would not, and she appreciated that her colleagues thought to ask. That might not be the issue of the day in your office, but if others arise, professional candor is always a good option.

Positive persuasion works better than the [sometimes preferred] knock on the noggin. One example comes from the “first woman of firsts,” Dr. Sally Ride. Discovery astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon, a physician, helped craft a device used in an attempt to retrieve a satellite. It entailed several stitches made with string and a sailmaker’s needed. A male astronaut, acting as Mission Control communicator with the shuttle, complimented Dr. Seddon on her “seamstress” work. Ride said she wanted to correct that comment. “That was the work of a surgeon,” Ride said, with a smile.

Communication is about letting each other know what we think or believe. Those who continue to choose male-only words to describe women and men can point to centuries of examples. But they will be looking backwards, and they risk having their words misinterpreted by some or rejected by those who feel left out of the message. Gender-neutral language values all of us equally.

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