Using Gender Inclusive Language
What is Gender Identity?
Gender identity refers to how we understand our gender—as male, female, a blend of both, or neither. Our true gender may be the same as or different from the sex assigned at birth. Gender and biological sex are not the same term and should not be used interchangeably.
Orientation and Gender
Orientation and gender are distinct identities. Every person has an orientation and gender.
For example: a transgender man (gender) attracted to women is heterosexual (orientation). A cisgender woman (gender) attracted to all genders is pansexual (orientation). A cisgender man (gender) who doesn’t experience sexual attraction is asexual (orientation).
Why Gender-Inclusive Language Matters
If you’re wondering, “Does it matter? Everyone knows what I mean.” The answer is no, they don’t.
Gendered language assumes a binary—a classification of gender into two distinct, opposite masculine and feminine forms. It’s an outdated model of gender, which is now understood as a spectrum. Additionally, gendered language often defaults to masculine nouns and pronouns, which support or lead to bias, regardless of intent.
By contrast, gender-neutral language avoids sex and gender bias. And, since it’s impossible to know the gender of your reader or listener, gender-neutral language ensures inclusion.
Gender-Inclusive Best Practices
Language that communicates inclusion and affirms all genders makes everyone feel safe. Scroll through the interaction below for a few best practices.
When referring to a singular human in the third person, it’s important and respectful to use their pronouns correctly. These are some examples:
- She/her/hers for someone who identifies as female or feminine.
- He/him/his for someone who identifies as male or masculine.
- They/them/their can function as a gender-neutral singular pronoun when you don’t know a person’s gender or for someone who does not identify strictly with a gender.
- Neopronouns such as Ze/zir/hir are created pronouns that don’t express gender.
- Rolling pronouns alternate between pronoun sets like using she/they or he/zir. Using rolling pronouns can affirm different parts of identity or fluctuations in identity, or can be used to protest gendered pronouns. Just ask what the person prefers.
Note: If you aren’t sure what pronoun a person uses, “they” is respectful when referring to someone in the third person. For example: “The customer was here a moment ago … I don’t know where they went!”
These preface a name and are typically related to marital, social, or education status such as Miss, Lord, or Dr. For example:
- Miss and Mrs. indicate marital status. Ms. is unrelated to marriage and is a better choice for women.
- Mx. (pronounced “Mix”) is a gender-neutral option for those who don’t want to be identified by or don’t identify as a specific gender. Use Mx. orally and in writing.
- In writing, if the gender or preferred title isn’t known, refer to people by their name without an honorific (Dear Jane Dalimil) or by adding a gender-neutral M. before the name (Dear M. Dalimil).
There’s no need to specify gender for titles related to education, and doing so can appear biased by implying that it’s an exception. In general, avoid gendered honorifics unless you are certain of the person’s gender.
Gendered job titles send an underlying message that the job isn’t equally open to everyone. Avoid titles that specify a gender, such as “mailman,” “chairman,” or “salesman.” Gender-neutral titles like “postal worker,” “chair,” or “sales associate” are better choices.
Don’t use gender concerning a position or use one gender to indicate all genders. For example, “The ideal salesman candidate brings with him a strong roster of clients,” or “An ‘A’ student prepares for class by reading her assignments ahead of time.”
A Few Do’s and Don’ts
In addition to honorifics, pronouns, and titles, consider these general best practices for inclusive language of spoken and written gender.
- Don’t make assumptions based on appearance, gender expression, or name. None of these characteristics reliably indicate gender. If you don’t know, use the person’s name or a gender-neutral pronoun.
- Don’t push. It’s nosy and entitled to demand that people share their identity or pronouns. Plus, it’s not always safe or comfortable to talk about with others. Leave autonomy where it belongs: with the person telling their story.
- Don’t deadname. Deadnaming is calling a transgender person an incorrect name, usually, the one they were given at birth. Use their current name, even when referring to past events.
- Do mirror word choices. Use the name and pronoun others use to self-identify and use what they use to describe themselves.
- Do expect to mess up. Slipping up is human. Apologize, move on, and do better next time.
To learn more about pronouns, visit: Pronouns.org Resources on Personal Pronouns.