Can a gender-neutrality policy mitigate the effects of gender bias in our language?

By Céline Monnier

Image by Javier Hirschfeld via Getty Images

“Language shapes our mindset and determines what we think”, said the linguist Benjamin Whorf. Benjamin Whorf is often associated with the linguistic relativity theory which states that the grammatical and verbal structures of a person’s language influence how they perceive the world. So, does that mean that the language we speak exacerbate inequalities, particularly related to gender? If so, could our policy responses around gender neutral language mitigate this effect? Let’s find out.

Language reinforces bias

Image by Mona Chalabi via Twitter

Languages can be divided into three gender-related categories:

  • Gendered languages (e.g. French, Spanish, German) in which all nouns and pronouns are assigned a masculine or feminine – and sometimes neutral – gender.
  • Gender natural languages (e.g. English) in which only pronouns are assigned a masculine or feminine gender (he/she).
  • Genderless languages (e.g. Finnish, Mandarin) in which nouns and pronouns do not have an assigned gender.

The gender structure of our language impacts the way we think by making us more or less aware of gender. Moreover, all three categories are privileging the masculine in some way, particularly through the use of masculine generics (or ‘masculine defaults’).

Masculine generic terms are often used in gendered languages when it is unclear whether the subject is male or female, or for mixed-gender groups. French schoolchildren are taught in their grammar classes that “the masculine always prevails over the feminine”. But a preference for masculine forms is not exclusive to gendered languages, gender natural languages such as English also use masculine as the default grammatical gender. In fact, the default singular pronoun was the masculine form until the late 1900s. He, his and him were used for all instances when a singular pronoun was needed and gender was unknown. Even though the practice of using he as the singular default pronoun has now faded and has been replaced by the singular they, legal jargon continues to favour the masculine form, and masculine defaults in general. For example, the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution still reads “No person shall be compelled to be witness of himself”.

Masculine generics are also commonplace when referring to titles of prestige, which are frequently masculine by default and modified in their feminine articulation. For instance, the German word for a (man) doctor is Artz and for a (woman) doctor is Ärtzerin. The feminine longer term is called the marked term, while the masculine shorter is called the unmarked term. This applies to the vast majority (if not all) of the gendered and natural-gendered languages, wherein the masculine term is used as default and the feminine one as ‘exception’. That might explain why women are significantly less likely to apply for jobs with masculine suffixes (-man versus –person). This phenomenon is again not exclusive to gendered languages; genderless languages also tend to unconsciously use masculine default by automatically categorising gender-neutral references as males (e.g. congressperson). Masculine generics play an important role in shaping individuals’ attitudes toward gender and occupation, and unconsciously limit our professional choices.

The impact of gendered bias in language

Grammatical gender and language have more impact on gender inequality than you would think. Language not only defines culture, but also shapes cultural norms, reflects social structures and bias, and reinforces assumptions and inequalities related to gender roles. A 2011 study, for example, revealed that countries where gendered languages are spoken evidence less gender equality compared to countries with other grammatical gender systems. Moreover, a 2018 study found out that grammatical gender is associated with a 15 percentage point gap in female labour force participation relative to men, even after controlling for economic and geographic factors that might be driving the difference. All in all, gendered languages could account for 125 million women worldwide being out of the labour force.

These language-induced inequalities are not exclusive to the workplace: they are also replicated in policymaking spaces, peace negotiations, consultations, assemblies, asylum and nationality application processes, or in virtually any space where opportunities for social mobility lie, and decisions that affect society are being taken. Moreover, gender bias in language interacts with other biases and obstacles to equality, including race, ethnicity, class, age, ability, neurotype, sexual orientation and identity. All these markers are also ingrained in languages and require specific strategies to mitigate its effects.

What we can do about it

Words are not just words. There are clear evidence that the way we use language reinforces gender stereotypes, therefore contributing to gender inequality. Nevertheless, language can also be used to challenge and call out gender bias in many ways. Adopting a gender-neutral language is one of them. In fact, individuals and organisations have begun to think critically about the language they use and make deliberate choices around it. This includes the implementation of a gender-neutrality policy to explicitly avoid masculine defaults and promote gender-neutral language in its stead.

Yet governance spaces have been slow at adapting to this societal change and endorsing a reparative and gender-neutral approach to language. The European Parliament issued some recommendations and guidance in 2008 (revised in 2018) on the use gender-neutral language, inviting MEPs and anyone associated with the institutions to avoid words that “can be interpreted as biased, discriminatory or demeaning by implying that one sex or social gender is the norm”. Particularly, this guidance included English-specific recommendations such as discouraging the generic use of man, he, his, etc., avoiding using Miss or Mrs, and by using gender-neutral job titles. Similarly, the European Commission, issued in 2021 its guidelines on inclusive communication, asking officials to “never address an audience as ‘ladies and gentlemen’ but use expressions such as ‘Dear colleagues’”. Dedicated bodies contributing to gender-neutral language have also been founded such as the European Institute for Gender Equality, which has among its objectives to promote research around language reform.

Despite this welcome progress, these measures remain mostly symbolic or didactic, and overall insufficient to tackle gender bias. This is a missed opportunity. A more proactive approach to language reform could have significant impact, with the EU potentially having an influential role across 24 different linguistic contexts. In addition, a comprehensive gender-neutrality policy would make the EU more coherent with its policy objectives, more aligned with the societal changes and more reflective of the values of justice and equality it espouses.

Finally, reforming language is only a first step in the long path towards gender equality. As much as it is vital, avoiding “as far as possible” the use of a language that is not gender inclusive is not sufficient. Language reform should be accompanied by concrete policies that empower women and minorities to transform policy spaces in meaningful and profound ways. Linguistic modifications must be accompanied by social and political adjustments to address existing inequalities between genders. Words matter but actions speak louder than them, and when they all align with each other, the message cannot be missed.

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